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Switching Back — Why Android P Navigation Sucks
I’m Switching Back
I’m Switching Back
Following its launch in 2017, the iPhone X introduced (or reintroduced) much of the world to gesture-based navigation. With a swipe up from the bottom bar, the user could ‘go home’. A swipe to the right or left would move the user between apps. A swipe up and a brief hold would open up the multitasking screen. It all seemed to ‘just work’ in the way in which Apple once earned its reputation as a leader of computer innovation. And a lot of their ideas made sense. Reviewers loved it.
Now, gesture-based navigation has long existed on mainstream Android in such things as the (now deceased) Google Now gesture swiping up from the home button and, technically, things like the notification shade pull-down and swipe-from-the-side to access the ‘hamburger’ menu; third-party ROMs, mods and apps have also sought to introduce elements of gesture-navigation to the mix on Android — but it was only in 2018 that Google decided to not only add a gesture navigation option to Android Pie, but also to make the default and only option on their new range of handsets.
Now, I don’t have a Pixel 3 or a Pixel 3 XL but I do have an old Pixel XL. In fact, this thing is still my daily driver. And this means I am one of the lucky few who have been on Android P for several months now. As a result, I’ve enabled the gesture-based Android P navigation option and have been swiping away on that little pill for some months now.
But not anymore.
As of two weeks ago, I have switched back to the old three-button set up as my full-time method of navigation. It was an easy decision. And it’s not as if I didn’t try. Aside from some initial misgivings, I (almost) totally bought into Google’s vision of gesture navigation. I didn’t have to enable the mode (unlike Pixel 3 and 3XL owners, who have no choice, poor suckers), but I did and I lived with it — until I grew to hate it all over again.
Here’s why I switched back:
1 — The pill has no visual advantage. It still requires an unused area at the bottom of the screen that is just as big as the one needed for the three button set-up. The black bar that appears in some apps at the bottom of the screen is just as big. The pill is a change for the sake of change, rather than something that brings an immediate advantage.
2 — It’s not finished. The swipe-left-to-go-back gesture was the first thing people were asking for when they started looking at it. If you can swipe right to switch apps (where the old ‘overview’ square button was) why can’t you swipe left to go back (where the back button still pops up when in an app, throwing the design off balance and heavy on the left)? It’s a half gesture, half button mash up. A Frankenavigation.
3 — It’s janky. The Pixel XL, just a couple of years old, stutters and drops frames when the user swipes up. Not nice.
4 — It feels wrong. Having to swipe all the way up from the bottom to nearly the top of the device to fully open the app drawer is awkward and goes wrong more often than not. It is not a comfortable gesture and the visual switch between the overview screen and the app drawer doesn’t seem as natural as it should; your apps pop in and then pop out needlessly. It doesn’t feel ‘confident’.
5 — I don’t like switching apps ‘blind’. Switching back to the three button won’t help this, unfortunately, but Pre-Pie Android aligned apps vertically and showed you several apps in the overview screen at the same time, just like Chrome on Android still shows you several tabs in its own overview screen. It worked. You could see back several apps, easily swipe between them, ignore the ones you didn’t want and simply select the one you did. The Pie overview screen is aligned left to right and only shows you the current app and a little tiny bit of the next app. This isn’t enough. Navigating between apps is now much, much slower. The user has to move between open apps one by one or find themselves having to swipe through a few and then swipe back one-by-one if they swipe too far. It just feels like you are trying to balance the app blindfolded.
6 — It doesn’t match ChromeOS. Sure, both ChromeOS and Android have the swipe-up to access the app-drawer, but that could have been added to the three button set up of Android Pre-Pie, just like the old Google Now gesture. But ChromeOS now works so similarly to how Android has in the past. There is a hardware back button on the keyboard and on screen in both apps and on the left of the shelf when in tablet mode. The circular button that brings up the new app-drawer homescreen in tablet mode does a very similar thing to the Android home button and has a keyboard button of its own when in desktop mode. The multi-tasking overview screen has a hardware button on the keyboard and is very similar in concept, if not appearance, to the Android overview. With a few visual tweeks, these navigation methods could even look the same in terms of their icons and how information is displayed on screen — because they work almost exactly the same within the OS. But the Pie navigation creates a needless barrier between how the user works on ChromeOS and Android. It introduces two distinct navigation methods for big and small screen devices. Now, you might think that navigation doesn’t have to be the same on big screen and small screen devices and I’d say sure — but with ChromeOS and Android (much more than OSX and iOS or Windows and… er… Hololens?) there is a chance of one-method-to-rule-them-all that actually works — thereby making it easier for Android apps to feel familiar on ChromeOS, which could well be ChromeOS’s path to full consumer acceptance.
7 — It’s just not magical. It feels like a reaction to the iPhone rather than a deliberate choice and it doesn’t ‘taste’ right. And I’m going to be having something every day, it has to be magical for me to be happy.
So I’ve switched back to the three button set up: and it’s great.
It feels ‘right’ again. This might be indoctrination through years of use, but after months of swiping, I’m glad to be tapping buttons again.
It isn’t all clear sailing. Firstly, I would still really like to swipe up to access the app drawer from any screen. There’s no swipe-up gesture in its place, so it feels like a missed opportunity to unify further between ChromeOS and Android. But secondly, and more worryingly, the Pie navigation method looks like it is going to be the only method of navigation on Android moving forward. That means at some point I’m going to have to accept the janky, awkward, copycat method back into my life. I’m not happy about that; but, for now, I intend to put it off for as long as possible.