Once upon a time, getting around Android was a pretty simple process.
You wanted to go to your home screen? You’d tap the Home button. Needed to move back a step? You’d hit the Back button. Felt like hopping directly between some recently used apps? Yeah — you’d smash that Overview button in the same bottom-bar area of your screen. The only real variable was whether you used a phone made by a (cough, cough) certain company that stubbornly insisted on putting those buttons in the wrong order for no apparent reason.
Nowadays, it’s a different story. Some Android phones still use that standard three-button setup. Others use 2018’s Android Pie gesture system, with its single centered “pill” that puts the Home button and Overview button into the same centered spot. Not all phones with Pie have that gesture system activated, though. Some Android device-makers have added their own custom gesture setups into the mix, while others are opting to shield their loyal device-owners from any gesture-induced confusion for the moment.
And come this fall, when Android Q starts to roll around, we’ll have yet another new gesture system in the wild — one that made its debut with the third Q beta in May and is slowly evolving with each subsequent Q preview.
It’s confusing as hell, to use the technical term. Folks going from no gesture system to the new Q gesture system — especially those who aren’t so tech-savvy — are gonna have a heck of a time adjusting to the new tapping-free approach for getting around a phone. And the unlucky mortals who just got used to Pie’s gestures are gonna be doing a good amount of groaning when they find themselves facing Yet Another New System (a common enough theme here in Google Land that it’s officially now earned proper-noun status).
You know what, though? Despite all the short-term confusion and the nausea-inducing flipping and flopping (or flopping and flipping, if you prefer), I’m optimistic this latest change will be a positive progression for Android in the long run. The truth is that Pie’s gesture system was never especially great. And once you get over the initial shock of the latest switcheroo, Q’s reimagined approach is without a doubt the more natural, more intuitive, and generally just better arrangement.
Or at least the better foundation. For all its positives, Android’s new gesture system still has some serious usability issues — quirks that make it irksome and sometimes even impossible to use effectively. It’s still a beta-level thing, so we have to be a little forgiving, but Q’s time for active development is rapidly coming to a close — with just two near-final “release candidates” left before the official Q rollout — so we also have to start thinking realistically about what sort of experience the final Q release will bring us.
Here’s hoping Google irons out these areas and achieves a smooth, polished-feeling gesture experience by the time the final Q software arrives:
1. The Back command inconsistency
After having lived with Android Q’s gestures for a full two months now, I’m confident in saying that swiping inward from the edge of your screen to go back a step is a spectacular way to get around your phone. Working your thumb all the way down to the lower-left corner of the screen, where Android’s traditional Back button lived, was always a bit of a chore — one of those awkward palm-yoga-requiring movements (mind out of the gutter, bucko) — and being able to swipe anywhere along either edge of the display seems superior in every way.
I’d actually toyed around with creating similar setups using third-party apps before, in fact. It really is an ergonomic improvement given the size of our modern-day phones, and now it’s built right into Android itself.
The problem is that it doesn’t always work consistently — and that, in turn, causes you to yell out family-friendly curses like “GEE WILLIKERS, GOOGLERS!” or “GO TO HECK, YOU GOSH DARNED CELLULAR TELEPHONE APPARATUS!” while angrily twirling your metaphorical old-timey moustache. (You do have a metaphorical old-timey moustache, right? They’re invaluable when it comes to comically expressed rage.)
The most common area where you encounter this flub — one you may have heard about or perhaps even experienced yourself by now, if you’re a beta-rockin’ sort of land creature — is when you’re using an app that has one of those slide-in left-of-screen menus, as many Android apps do. The slide-in gesture for opening the menu, y’see, is pretty much the same as the slide-in gesture for going back a step in Android Q. And so you end up in a dicey situation where you get stuck swiping eternally — while viewing an individual message in Gmail, for instance — and never moving back but instead opening and closing your current app’s menu in a maddeningly endless cycle.
And gee willikers, lemme tell ya: That’s enough to make even a sane person’s brain boil. (Or so I’d imagine.)
Other times, you might end up accidentally activating the Back command when you actually just want to swipe normally in that same area of the screen — to adjust a slider that extends close to the screen’s edge, for instance, or to swipe away something like a message in a list. You also might find yourself in an area of Android where the Back command inexplicably doesn’t do anything, as I’ve encountered on more than a few occasions. For all of its convenience, the swipe-in-from-the-side gesture just seems to interfere with an awful lot of things.
Google is supposedly working on a fix, but I’m skeptical of how effective it’ll actually be. The first part, according to info posted on Twitter by an Android team member, involves allowing you to open an app menu by “peeking the drawer” and then swiping — in other words, swiping in just a teensy bit from the side of the screen, then pausing for a moment and then swiping some more. Um, right. A perfectly natural and intuitive thing to do. (Or not.)
According to a leaked upcoming beta release, meanwhile, our Android creators are also considering a “Back Sensitivity” option that’ll let you lower the sensitivity of the new Back gesture in order to lessen the odds of it interfering with other commands. Again, not exactly the most elegant- or effective-seeming way to fix this and not something an average user should have to mess with (though “Back Sensitivity” does sound like a nice option for the massage therapist robot I can only hope Google is working on).
And finally, Google’s continuing to refine the ways in which developers can opt their apps out of Q’s Back gesture in order to avoid conflicts. Once more, not exactly the way to create a clear and consistent user experience.
And there’s more.
2. The Overview command clunkiness
Android’s Overview system — y’know, the screen that lets you flip through your recently used apps and also access app suggestions, a Google search bar, and your entire app drawer from anywhere on your phone — is one of the operating system’s most useful and underutilized features. If there’s one thing the Pie release got right with its gesture setup, it was bringing fresh emphasis to that area of Android and making it easier than ever to interact with.
In Android Q, things kind of move in the opposite direction. In theory, Q lets you get to the Overview interface by swiping up on the thin bar at the bottom of the screen, then pausing and holding your finger down for a moment. In practice, it’s damn near impossible to do that correctly with any amount of consistency — and even when it does work, it’s a painstakingly poky way to perform an action that should feel instantaneous.
Seriously: It’s gotten to the point where I’ve become so frustrated at not being able to pull up Overview rapidly or reliably that I just don’t use it anymore and instead mostly jump back to my home screen and then go from there. Or, worse yet, I’ll use that bottom-of-screen bar to blindly swipe through apps in an iOS-like manner and hope I’ll land on the one I want.
Speaking of which…
3. The app-swiping unpredictability
One of Android Q’s new gesture powers is the ability to swipe in either direction on that bottom-of-screen bar and move backwards or forwards in some sort of hypothetical “app continuum.” It’s a direct ripoff (er, sorry, “inspiration borrowing”) of the iPhone gesture setup, and it’s quite possibly the worst part of what Google’s doing.
Let’s start with the positive: Flicking that bar right once to go back to your most recently used app is pretty handy. And then realizing that you want to go forward to the app you were just using a minute ago and flicking that bar left to get there is a nifty trick.
But outside of that very limited action, the “app continuum” thing just isn’t especially practical. Your lizard brain doesn’t remember the exact order of every app you’ve had open over time and so you end up just swiping without knowing what you’re gonna find — then frequently going through several random processes before landing on the one you want. It’s a less sensible version of the regular (and now difficult to open) Overview arrangement, and it just isn’t an effective system.
The whole continuum concept doesn’t even hold up, either: Say you’re looking at very important business-related images in Google Photos (because those are clearly the only kinds of images you have on your phone — right?). Then you flick the bottom-of-screen bar to the right and move back to the last app you used, Gmail, in order to review some very important business-related emails from your very important business associates (again, the only kind that exist in your pure and eternally focused life). You open a message, then think to yourself, “My goodness, I need to jump back to Google Photos for a jiff!”
You’d think you’d be able to flick that bottom-of-screen bar to the right to do it — right? Wrong. That only works for a brief while after you switch apps. Once you’ve opened a message in Gmail, flicking to the right on that bar won’t do a darn thing. You’ll have to flick to the left, in the “back” direction, to get to Photos. My goodness.
4. The Google Assistant gaffe
Google Assistant is the center of everything Google does these days. That much we know. And yet, in a particularly puzzling and counterintuitive twist, getting to Assistant within Android Q’s gesture system is an exercise in aggravation.
Used to be, you’d press and hold your Home key to pull up Assistant. That command has been around long enough that most Android-totin’ mammals know it well. But with Q, there is no pressable Home key, and the thin bar that now sits in the Home key’s former spot has approximately 7,477 different gestures associated with it.
So what Google came up with in Q is a gesture where you swipe inward diagonally from the bottom corner of your screen to open up Assistant. It’s not only out of sight and out of mind — a proven way to get people not to use something — but also all too easy to activate by mistake. I think 90 percent of my Assistant activations as of late have been accidents (and typically followed by outbursts of “GO TO HECK, YOU GOSH DARNED CELLULAR TELEPHONE APPARATUS!”). Google’s supposedly working on a fix for the discoverability part of the problem, but that wouldn’t do anything to address the accidental activation factor.
All in all, there’s plenty of potential in Android Q’s gesture navigation system. It feels like a sensible foundation for the future — just one with lots of rough edges that need to be ironed out.
If Google manages to figure out these pesky problems prior to the final Q release, we’ll be golden. If not — well, my friends, we’re gonna be giving our phones a certain single-fingered gesture plenty of times in the year between now and Android R’s arrival.
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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]