A Problem with Holo

Before anyone jumps down my throat, in general I think Holo looks great, and in most ways it's an improvement over what we had before. However, there I think there is a usability issue which many, if not most, holo apps have in common, and it relates to the deprecation of the old menu in favour of on-screen icons and the overflow menu.

Now, the pre-ICS menu wasn't great either. The problem with that was there was no on-screen visual clue that menu functionality was available at all. You had to guess that there might be menu options, and press the hardware menu button to see if you were right. If you were, a pop-up menu would appear. Far from ideal. However, once you were looking at the menu, things were a bit better. It wasn't necessarily pretty, but you had up to six icons with text - a nice easy way to identify the option you needed.

The problem with holo

With holo, in theory all that hidden stuff is right there on the screen in a menu bar, but that has just introduced a new problem. Due to the limited screen real-estate, there are only icons and no text, so you have to work out and remember the meaning of each icon. And to make matters worse, the visual style of holo is for flat, monochrome icons. These look great, but also rather abstract in a way that often makes the intended meaning of the icon less apparent to the untrained eye. For example, even the pervasive "share" icon would be almost impossible to guess. I wonder how long it take a nervous first-time users to figure out what it means?

[EDIT: Thanks to commenters for pointing out that long-pressing on an icon tells you what it does. I didn't know this. It helps, but it's still not great. The long-press is hidden functionality and not obvious to some (ahem) experienced users, let alone newbies]

Here's some more examples. I wonder how many people can say the precise meanings of all of these (apologies for higgledy-piggledy sizes). OK, almost everyone reading this has experience with holo, so you probably did OK. What about your parents, grandparents or less tech-savvy friends, how would they fare?

Perhaps some of you wont recognise the problem, but it's definitely taken me a little while to learn the meaning of some of the icons, and I'm a technophile. My mother has just bought a Nexus 7 on my recommendation. I think I made the right call (she wanted a tablet, but was worried about spending too much and wanted something smaller than an iPad). However, I do worry about the abstract nature of the holo icons - I know it will make the learning curve that little bit steeper. And as long as new apps are being released with new functions, there will always be new icons to figure out.


Then you have the overflow menu, which has the opposite problem: it's a boring list of text without icons to aid quick visual recognition. The old pop-up menu was better than this, because it had icons plus text.

A solution

And finally, here's my suggested solution: the overflow menu should also contain icons to the immediate left of the text options, just like the top-level Android settings menu does. This immediately improves the usability of the overflow menu. Secondly, any icon that appears on the on-screen menu bar, should also appear in the overflow menu with a text label. The "overflow menu" becomes the "full menu", and the persistent menu bar items become icon shortcuts to the most commonly used menu options.

The result is that if you don't know what an icon means, you can use the full menu to check. The text is there to help you learn, and once you start to recognise the icon you can skip a step. The full menu now also has icons against every option, to aid quick visual assessment of even the less frequently used options that aren't on the menu bar.

People often say that iOS is more user-friendly than Android, and I think for beginners at least, they're probably right. I hope this change would make things much easier for first time users of a particular app, and for newcomers to Android as a whole. And I think it would help my mother out.

More solutions

What do you guys think? And how did you do on the icon quiz? Solutions below in order

My apps (Google Market)
Go today's date (Google Calendar)
Find local businesses (Google Maps)
Discover, search for or add new feeds (Google Reader)
Compose tweet (Boid)
Mark as unread (Gmail, Email & Reader)
Layers (Google Maps)
Archive this email (Gmail)
Tags (Gmail)