Is the concept of Android's navigation bar broken?

This open letter was first posted on Google+ and due to the overwhelming response - constructive criticism as well as praise - I decided to repost it here. Feel free to check out the existing comments on G+ for further informations and discussions.


Dear Android Design Team,

I've always been a strong believer in Android's navigation concept and I'm confident it's a corner stone of Android's success. Sure, it might not be the most elegant or transparent solution ("What exactly will happen if I tap on the Back-button?"), but it just works perfectly 99% of the time and that's quite an achievement!

I personally see Android's Back- and Home-button as the ESC-button of the smartphone and tablet generation - even more than Apple's ever so awkward one-button-does-all-solution. Back and Home not only act as universal panic button and therefore reduces the user's fear of doing something wrong but they also make Android more consistent, easier to use across all the different apps (you don't have to search the app-dependent Back-button/solution - if there is one) and they reduce the user's cognitive load, freeing up their cognitive resources for more important tasks.

However, the way we access those wonderful functions - Back, Home and Recent Apps - is completely broken, for three main reasons:

1. Roughly speaking, it's always there when I don't need it, significantly reducing the active screen estate by 48dp, and when it's not there - for instance in fullscreen apps - I realize I'd need it. Yikes! Yes, it sounds paradoxical, but if you think about it, you come to the conclusion that the navigation bar probably doesn't belong on the screen.

Now, I know your reasoning behind the decision to scrap hardware navigation buttons altogether, but maybe the current visualization and placement of the navigation bar is just not optimal.


2. Talking about the placement of the navigation bar, it's probably the worst aspect about it's current implementation. Placing the bar on the bottom of the screen makes it nearly impossible to reach it without hassle - at least when navigating the phone with one hand, which should be considered the standard way of using a phone. At best, the over 90°-movement of your thumb looks and feels awkward, however for most people, especially younger and older ones, reaching the Back-button with their thumbs is just an impossible task. And the bad news don't stop here: The bigger the screen, the worse it gets, making 5"+ phone impossible to navigate with one hand, no matter how great your motor functions are.


I know, it isn't as aesthetically pleasing as the current implementation, but for the sake of ergonomics the current navigation bar should rather be located at the top of screen rather than at the bottom. And the order of the buttons should be altered: The Back-button, which is undeniable the most used one, should be the easiest to reach, so it should belong to the top right (for righties at least).


3. As mentioned above, the current Back-button doesn't provide any visual cues of what's going to happen next, when tapped. The user might ask himself:

"Will I go back within my current app, or will it send me back either to another app or my home screen?"

Since those cues are missing, people have to either remember their previous navigational history as a mental map (unnecessary cognitive load!) or they simply won't know what is going to happen if the tap the button, resulting in fear of doing something potentially wrong.


Here's my proposal

Okay, now let's stop criticizing the current implementation, since we all know it's easy to criticize but way harder to come up with better solutions. I tried my best though and came up with a different approach to navigating the Android OS. It's in a form of a video mockup and you can watch it here:

Please read my annotations in this video. And yes, it's a nod to WebOS and I should have picked another app to demonstrate my points, since Play Kiosk navigates nicely without the back-button. Please just imagine Chrome instead of Play Kiosk.


I'm using this very kind of navigation - sans the visualization, of course - since I got my Nexus 4 over a year ago, using an app called GMD Gestures while hiding the navigation bar.

And well, it's a blast. It's way faster, ergonomic and simply better than any other current solution available right now - like, for instance the "pie navigation" implemented in some ROMs, which has some major interference with existing apps. I'd like to ask you to try it out yourself using GMD Gestures. After a day you won't go back to the standard navigation bar, I promise.

To wrap it up, here's a short list of pros and con of my proposal:

Pros:

+ coherently visualized, making it more graspable compared to other solutions

+ again, more ergonomic than the standard implementation

+ apps are always fullscreen and there's no need to swipe the navigation bar up when needed

+ 99% software based - only a tiny physical or visual cue must be added to the hardware itself to mark the start area of the gestures

+ conception-wise it integrates nicely into the idea of the beloved card-style apps like Google Now, G+,...

+ only very minor interference to current apps

+ adapts nicely to the various requirements of differently skilled users (see video annotations)

Con:

- small learning curve, like with all gestures, but you guys have never been too afraid of that, right? :P



It'd be really cool to hear back from you guys and pals just to let me know what you think. Thanks for reading and watching my stuff and I wish you a

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,


Marc