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Android Q’s back gesture controversy, explained

You can’t go back to the way it was

If you’ve been plugged in to the Android community for the past few months, you have probably seen that there’s been a growing controversy over the gestural navigation system coming in Android Q. Google’s implementation of the back gestures essentially breaks the ability to open up a common feature in apps using a swipe: the left-hand navigation drawer.

You can still tap the “hamburger” button, of course — and that’s what more than 90 percent of Android users do, according to Google — but the 3 to 7 percent of users who slide their thumb over to open those drawers are finding that a common thing they do hundreds of times a day suddenly doesn’t work anymore.

That gesture now maps to back, though Google has tried to make some affordances to make it possible to open the drawer without reaching up to the button. Those affordances are, well, pretty bad.

Outrage has ensued.

I got on a call with a few Google product managers yesterday to talk about this issue, and I came away better understanding the company’s reasoning behind these changes. Later today, the company will also put up a blog post explaining its thinking. Like much of the Android community, I’m not sure I fully agree with the changes Google is making. Unlike much of the community, though, I don’t think Google has gone too far. Instead, I think Google hasn’t done a good enough job of communicating why it made these changes and — more importantly — standing behind them.

If you’re not following the Android blogs, you might say this is a tempest in a teapot. But what’s brewing in this seemingly small teapot is the future of the operating system used by the majority of people today — one that’s bigger than the iPhone and bigger even than Windows. So although it will take some time for Android Q to arrive on most phones (Android updates are a whole other controversy), it will eventually.

You hate to see it, especially since it was totally predictable. I specifically worried about it when I received the very first demo for Q back in May. It was also predictable because, generally speaking, the internet hates interface change. Twitter’s web redesign is just the latest example in a long history of hating new layouts. The Android community is particularly fertile ground for this kind of ire since it’s made up of technical people with strong opinions on what phones they prefer, which is a byproduct of having way more options than iPhone users.

There are other reasons beyond the back button that have caused consternation. The speed and quality of Android’s animations throughout the beta process hasn’t been great, but I think things have improved quite a bit over the past few months. Google has also been tweaking the gesture for bringing up Google Assistant as well as the visual indicators for that gesture over time. They’re much better now, but it took a few months to get there.

The beta process itself has also partially caused this reaction. Google changed the look, feel, and behavior of its gestures several times over the course of various Q betas, which has led everybody to wonder where it’ll end up. It also led everybody to hope that if they express their opinions loudly enough, it will force a change.

That’s all for the good. It’s how betas work, and it’s especially how Google’s betas work. A philosophy of openness and being responsive to user feedback is great, but in this case, Google should have been clearer in communicating and much more confident in standing by those changes. By trying to make everybody happy, the company is achieving the opposite effect.

Let’s talk communication first. I learned a ton from my chat with Google’s product managers, and I understand some of the changes far better now. Some of the recent changes could have been put in a much clearer context.

For example, the latest beta has a “Back gesture sensitivity” option. Adjusting it changes the size of the area on the sides of your screen that are sensitive to the back gesture. I assumed it was there as a response to all of this foofaraw, but it’s not that at all. Instead, the huge diversity of Android phones out on the market means that some of them simply have different sensitivities on their screen edges. The reason it’s a user-facing option and not just a default setting is because of phone cases. If you have a case that covers the edge of your screen, you might want to change that setting to make it easier to hit back.

The other recent addition is a “vertical app exclusion limit.” Essentially, app developers can choose to have a portion of the edges of the screen disable the back gesture. Many thought that was meant for app drawers, but no. Lots of apps have swiping actions like galleries or sliders that you need to be able to grab all the way at the edge of the screen. So developers can disable back next to those areas to ensure the back button isn’t accidentally triggered.

Google also hasn’t been very public in communicating what will happen with non-Pixel phones and third-party software. Lots of phones — especially Samsung and Sony — use the edges of the screen for their own custom features. Google will allow that to continue, but only if there’s a visual indicator for the sliding action and only if it’s kept to the top portion of the screen. Similarly, Google’s gesture navigation system doesn’t work with third-party app launchers yet, but that’s a technical issue that should get worked out soon.

Communicating all of that more clearly would have resolved a lot of the complaints, but not all, and that’s where I think Google should have communicated more forcefully. It’s vitally important that Google enforce consistency across the entire Android ecosystem. It can’t allow the core way you get around to be different across Samsung and OnePlus and Huawei and LG and whatever.

Using gestures to get around is simply better — as long as it’s well-implemented. There are a ton of benefits to it: it’s more intuitive and easier than tapping a button; you can make a big, broad movement instead of hitting a little touch target; you get more screen real estate for your apps. The iPhone may have popularized this trend in recent years, but it was coming either way.

Here’s something I learned from Google: the back button on Android is used 50 percent more often than the home button. It’s a wildly important feature, so it has to work the same everywhere. That’s why Google is reserving the entire left- and right-hand sides of the screen for it. Any confusion with going back would mess with the most commonly used core navigation feature on the most popular operating system on the planet.

If Google had simply said that the right and left edges of the screen were reserved for back, and that was that, we’d have grumbled and written some hot takes and then, eventually, just accepted it. App developers would eventually adjust their apps to work better in the new system, too. If Google is right that fewer than 10 percent of users even used a swipe to open the app drawer, it would have been better just to hold the line.

Instead, Google has tried to add a confusing and poorly implemented “peek” gesture, where you are supposed to be able to hold your finger down on the edge of the screen to make the drawer “peek” out, then slide your finger to open it instead of going back. It’s finicky and should be scrapped.

Google’s decision to allow the traditional three-button layout as an option in addition to this gesture system is a concession to everybody who dislikes this new system. But to me, that’s just another avenue for angst. Android is all about choice, and being able to choose allows you to imagine something better. A side effect is that choice can actually make you feel more dissatisfied.

Samsung, OnePlus, Huawei, Apple, and now Google all have different takes on how gestures work to navigate around on a phone. I don’t fully know if I think Google’s take on it in Android Q is better or worse, but it’s obvious that it is necessary. There’s a grammar to gestures on touchscreen computers, and it’s fast becoming our common language for getting around on them. Swipes are replacing buttons everywhere.

And there’s no going back.

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