Proposal for Android 4.1: A new way to navigate home screens


The Android operating system has an interesting home screen metaphor: up to seven screens that the user can swipe across to find customized screens of icons and widgets:


An example of Android's horizontal home screen navigation model

Cool, right? But for everyone who's actually used these screens over time, after the second swipe. you're kind of over how cool it is. You just want to get to your icon and/or widget... now.

Ice Cream Sandwich - a step in the right direction

Matias Duarte and his colleagues at Google have taken a step in the right direction with Ice Cream Sandwich, by limiting the number of home screens to five. Five is actually the ideal number of home screens (for reasons I'll explain below), but, oddly, Team Android did not take the next logical step towards dramatically improving home screen usability and efficiency. We're still swiping away, left and right.

Let's start by looking at the new Ice Cream Sandwich / Android 4.0 home screen:


Android Ice Cream Sandwich home screen

With Ice Cream Sandwich and all versions of Android, the gestures consist of swiping left and right to find the home screen you're looking for. As mentioned above, this can get tiresome right quick. Some custom skins allow you to "pinch to zoom out" so that thumbnail representations all five or seven home screens are available on one screen. But that still requires a pinch, browse and click. Still not ideal.

A new home screen navigation proposal

What I'm proposing is a new gesture that gives the user the ability to access to any home screen with a single gesture. Providing a one-step way to get to any of your five home screens seems to me to be an ideal scenario, giving the user instant access to any home screen, which will likely dramatically increase each screen's usefulness.

So, how do I propose we enter this Valhalla of Android homescreenitude? Let's start with a rough gesture sketch:


Gesture sketch of new diagonal swipes for Android home screens

As you can see from the above sketch, I am proposing a new corner-to-center gesture. This simple swiping gesture would call up one of the four other home screens to replace the default/center home screen. So, if I swipe from the top-left toward the center, I would replace my default home screen with home screen #1. Now that I'm on home screen #1, I could swipe any other corner-to-center to get access to the other three screens. And, on any home screen, I would simply tap on the home button to return to the default "center" home screen.


Demonstrating one-gesture access to screens [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]
(where [3] is the default home screen)

This new home screen navigation model provides one-gesture access to all five home screens from any of the five home screens. No more swiping and swiping to find the screen you want! Importantly, the screen #s are always consistent with the corner. So, top-left is always screen #1. If you're already on screen #1, for example, the top-left corner will not respond to a gesture.

Making it discoverable

One of the challenges for Android is ensuring that all its power and features are discoverable without requiring a lot of manual reading and education. Adding a new gesture certainly adds to this challenge, but this can be mitigated in two ways (which should go hand-in-hand):

  1. When launching Android for the first time, add a basic tutorial that shows the gesture sketch of how diagonal gestures can navigate you to specific home screens.
  2. Add visual cues that ensure the user discovers this innovative gesture option.

Adding these visual cues could be done in many ways, but one way that would get people jazzed would be to "steal a page" from the iBooks experience: the page fold:


Example of a visual page-turning cue to engage the user, providing a dynamic opt-out option

In the above scenario, I've tapped on the upper-right corner and am in the process of dragging toward the center to replace my home page with home screen #2. The page fold visual clearly indicates that there's another "page" to turn to, and instead of the white nothingness in my example above, the user would actually see a sneak peek of screen #2 behind the fold, slowly revealing the page you're about to switch to. By ensuring that this page fold could extend 1/2 way to the center before committing you to a full change in screen, the user could actually swipe 1/2 way down the phone to ensure page #2 is the page they actually want to switch to. In other words, with this approach, not only would you be only one-swipe-away from the desired page, but if you make a mistake, you can just release your finger and the page you're on snaps back. Just like an iBook.

Neat, but a bad idea?

For the skeptics and nay-sayers who are thinking "but Android doesn't have a diagonal swipe gesture" or "adding more gestures is not what the already complex Android platform needs" -- I'll grant you that adding another gesture is not the best idea in the world in general. I'm against complexity. But I'd argue that home screens in Android are a special case anyway -- there really is nothing else really like them in the rest of Android (or in any other OS as far as I know), so they are already unique. Why not imbue a unique gesture upon a unique aspect of the OS? (note: this new gesture model would not replace the existing horizontal swipe that currently exists -- it would merely extend the existing swiping controls available today.)

And, perhaps adding a diagonal gesture will have some future purpose beyond the home screen? Perhaps a "four corner" gesture solution would provide much-needed flexibility in our increasingly de-buttoned devices.

[Update: Based on Irrelevant Elephant's comments below, I concede that Android should not simply copy the iBook page-turn metaphor. It should be adapted into a cool, Roboto-inspired version of the page-turn metaphor. Not sure what this is, but it'd be a great avenue to explore.]

Does this idea have legs?

I'd like to hear from the community if having one-gesture access to any home screen would be beneficial to the platform. And, if so, if this gesture I'm proposing is the most elegant way of achieving such a goal.

I know Josh and Matias Duarte are solid, so I figured instead of going through all the effort of getting a patent on this usability improvement for Android, I'd just post it here -- and hope that it virally makes its way to the powers that be at Team Android, and perhaps inspire the design team there to consider giving us single-gesture access to all of our home screens.