12
Feb
andy_sisyphus
Last Updated: August 1st, 2012

This is part two in a series of editorials addressing our editors' biggest gripes with Android. Click here for part one, on fragmentation.

Android has advanced by leaps and bounds with the last few revisions. Android 2.2 (Froyo) famously brought massive performance improvements, 2.3 (Gingerbread) brought many subtle (and in sum, quietly substantial) usability and UI improvements, while 3.0 (Honeycomb) is bringing an entirely new UI to the OS.

I have to admit - I laid out this editorial weeks ago, when Gingerbread was still in its infancy and Honeycomb had yet to be officially revealed. Having used Gingerbread-powered CM7 for nearly a week now, I can say that Google is really starting to make progress on my gripes. So what's my beef? It's still not enough, and they've yet to address some even more substantial issues.

But First, A Little Background

In May of 2006, Google hired designer Douglas Bowman as Visual Design Lead. He had a hand in establishing the unified design language at Google, but left on a not-so-happy note in March of 2009. In a nutshell, his gripe boils down to the engineering-lead corporate culture at Google. In no way, shape, or form is an engineering-lead mindset a bad thing overall. After all, Google is very good at very many things for that very reason.

I have no idea if Mr. Bowman had a hand in handling the visual design of Android, and it's irrelevant for my point. What is relevant is that visual design took a back seat, and was decided largely through (figuratively) linear means.

An Ugly Duckling

And so we ended up with this:

tmobile-g1-1 tmobile-g1-2

Pictured: Quasimodo 2.0.

By just about any standards, AOSP Android has never really been attractive. In fact, I'd even say I think it has always been the least attractive smartphone OS, by a long shot.

The lame UI that's plagued Android may be the most obvious shortcoming, but it's not the only issue. For example, sliding between homescreens was noticeably laggy until Gingerbread. The lockscreen is still utterly lackluster, and the OS still lacks many transition effects.

Further, even in Gingerbread the system UI isn't totally unified. At times, highlights and accents are orange, and other times, green. And while you could argue that the situation has improved now that the system icons are adhering to some kind of green theme (for the most part - the Talk and Gmail icons aren't), I'd have to point out that they're still ugly as hell.

As I said before, Google's working to address some of these issues. They hired Matias Duarte - the man credited with creating the beautiful UI for WebOS - in late May. Gingerbread makes the entire OS much smoother and adds/improves transition effects (though it's still a bit of an ugly duckling), and Honeycomb will bring a hardware-accelerated UI, which should help significantly. As for transition effects... well, I have no idea if there are any planned, but I certainly hope so.

Cohesiveness

Even though it still has a ways to go, it's comforting to know that the UI shortcomings are being addressed. But that's not the only issue I see with the OS. More importantly is cohesiveness - the OS lacks uniformity. What do I mean? Well, I can't say it much better than Engadget's Joshua Topolsky in his review of the Nexus S:

Well, let's be clear -- Google still has major issues with text selection and editing on Android devices. The first striking problem is that there is not a consistent method of selecting text on the device. None. At all. In the browser, you long press on text to bring up your anchors, then drag and tap the center of your selection -- boom, copied text. In text editing fields, however, in order to select a word you must long press on the word, wait for a contextual menu to pop up, and then select "select word" -- a completely counterintuitive process. In the message app you can long press to select only the entire message, and in Google Reader? You can't select any text at all. Even worse, Gmail has a different method for selecting text from an email you're reading, and it's far more obnoxious than any of the others. There, selecting text goes from being mildly annoying to downright silly. Want to grab some text out of an email? Here's your process: hit the menu key, hit "more," hit "select text," and then finally drag your anchors out. Funnily enough, a little cursor appears when you start selecting -- a holdover from Linux? To have this many options and discrepancies over something as simple as copy and paste should be embarrassing to Google. What it mostly is, however, is a pain to the end user.

And that's kind of the crux of our problem with Android in its current state. We don't question the power of the OS, but the fit, finish, and ease of use simply is still not there. There is something disconcerting about an operating system that changes its rules from app to app -- for a mobile interface to work well, it has to be approached holistically and organically.

Text selection disparity aside, there are issues with the system just not performing as expected from time to time. For example, if you get a text message and open it from the status bar, then hit back, it takes you back to the homescreen, rather than back a menu to the messaging conversation list. I already have a dedicated home button; if I wanted to go back to the homescreen, I'd hit that. Even worse, the same thing happens sometimes when you open the messaging app: it opens directly to the last thread you had open, and when you hit back, you're once again back to the homescreen. The first case I can at least understand from a strictly logical point of view, but the second just makes no sense no matter which way you look at it.

The messaging app isn't the only issue, though - there are times when a recently used app doesn't appear in recent apps. Case in point: Google Talk. If you don't have Google Talk open, receive a message, and open it via the status bar, Talk doesn't show up in your recent apps - even though you just used it. The same issue is encountered when using apps indirectly - for example, if you're in the Gallery and share an image via imgur, the imgur app opens. But once you're finished with your sharing, the app isn't in recent apps. Ditto for composing a tweet from share.

Light At The End Of The Tunnel

As I mentioned earlier, my UI/graphical gripes were laid out before Gingerbread was really hitting the ROM mainstream and Honeycomb was extensively previewed. The bulk of the UI issues will likely be solved by Honeycomb, although just how many of Honeycomb's improvements will make it into the phone version of the OS is up in the air.

But what about uniformity and cohesiveness? Well, some improvements are to be found in Honeycomb, but as a whole, this one is a bit harder to judge - with every revision of Android, Google makes tons of improvements to the system. It's hard to say where this brand of issues rates on Google's priorities list.

In the meantime, I'm going to continue to customize my phone in just about every way I can - from custom ROMs, to custom themes, to custom lockscreens, and beyond - to make it more beautiful than others can match. After all, that's what makes Android the best OS, even despite its flaws.

Aaron Gingrich
Aaron is a geek who has always had a passion for technology. When not working or writing, he can be found spending time with his family, playing a game, or watching a movie.

  • http://www.toysdiva.com PixelSlave

    My biggest complaint on the UI is the customization by the handset makers make it difficult to transition from one Android phone to another. I myself have a Droid 1, it's a Google OS device. Many of my friends got the Droid 1 or Nexus One, all of them share the same UI look and feel. Recently, I helped someone with her myTouch 4G. Just changing the input method made my brain explode. It looks nothing like the UI I know of. On top of that, the size of the text "Input Method" under the icon is ridiculously small (what did HTC have in mind?)

  • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001028190696 d.

    This is much ado about nothing. You don't think Android is intuitive/easy-to-use? Go for something a little slower, since it's clearly too much for you.

    Not everything works the same all the time? Yeah, that's called diversity. It's typically a good thing. Sorry you think it's a pain.

    You think it's ugly? I think iOS is ugly. Who cares how it looks? Oh, that's right, Perez Hilton & Heidi Klum! I'm glad you keep headspace with them.

    I'm not sure why you think articles by people complaining about how Android isn't iOS would be popular on here, but it's more than annoying to hear someone re-hash iFanboy complaints about Android, like "I can't figure out how to exit apps correctly! Google's fault!"

    • http://www.toysdiva.com PixelSlave

      I don't get why you could interpret this article so differently than I did.

      He's pointing out something very true even if he took out every references to the iOS. Text selection really doesn't work consistently even in a Google OS experience phone. The back button doesn't always behave like it should have. This is not diversity, this is inconsistency.

    • Aaron Gingrich

      I think my reply to a similar comment on Part 1 applies here, as well: http://www.androidpolice.com/2011/02/11/android-intervention-part-1-of-4-why-google-needs-to-reign-in-updates/#comment-86943

      But you're right. Android clearly has no flaws, and in no way should any improvements be made. Because that's how progress is made, right?

      Also, thanks PixelSlave :)

    • http://www.google.com/profiles/vkelman Vladimir Kelman

      Pretty much agree with your comment.

    • Rotmann

      If you don't think android is a mess in the usability you haven't used another mobile operating system. Many options and menus are hidden and illogical (Wi-Fi and APN hidden menus as a quick example), I notice this all the time at my wife, she has often problems setting up things, she has to go to the manual (though she read it first) or ask me. A mobile operating system should be intuitive and easy to use for every noob. Now let's just hope Honeycomb will come to smartphones too.

      Congratulations Aaron on the brilliant editorials, more of these please! LMAO at Quasimodo 2.0 :D

      • http://www.google.com/profiles/vkelman Vladimir Kelman

        I haven't used another mobile OS, that's true. ADP1 was my first smartphone ans I immediately found it logical and easy to use, although it was slow.

        Don't you think that many options are intentionality hidden because they should be used rarely and when user really understand and need them? APN is not something to use all the time. To turn WiFi On/Off we can use a default widget on a home screen. On average, one don't need to change WiFi settings all the time, so that it's logically hidden inside menus.

    • http://www.google.com/profiles/vkelman Vladimir Kelman

      A first part of this article is definitely much about nothing. This part has *some* valid points, however.

    • James

      This is one of the most unintelligent comments I've ever seen on this website.

      "Go for something a little slower, since it’s clearly too much for you."
      What an arrogant little turd you are.

      You call the copy/paste functionality "diversity?" Come on, I'm a huge Android evangelist (I'd even accept being called an Android fanboy) and have been since 2008 - but even I can see that this is an inconsistency issue, NOT "diversity."

      "Who cares how it looks? Oh, that’s right, Perez Hilton & Heidi Klum! I’m glad you keep headspace with them."
      Seriously? I'm an engineer and a linux guy. I'm the type of person who always looks for function over form - but that's not to say form doesn't come into it at all.

      It may come as a shock to you that some people actually like the things they own to look nice. Additionally, some humans actually have different tastes to others. So while many people think Android's UI is fine as is, others would like to see a little more polish and a little more consistency.

      Dane, maybe you should have an open mind before making such snide and rude comments on a constructive article.

  • Eric

    I actually think the Gingerbread theme is amazing, though it looks like you disagree.
    "As for transition effects… well, I have no idea if there are any planned, but I certainly hope so."
    There have already been a few shown off. Look at what happens when you go to and from the add widgets page, or rotate the tablet on some of the xoom videos.
    Definitely agree on a lot of these points though, and it looks like gingerbread took it a good step in the right direction, and I wouldn't be surprised is somewhere in the 3.x lineup fixed almost all of the issues like that.

    Edit: Having a problem posting on your blog with Chrome. Java error. I can post in Opera though.

    • Chris

      That's odd. Chrome seems to be working fine for me in terms of posting.

  • Dan

    This is why I don't recommend Android to smartphone noobs unless it's an HTC phone with Sense UI. Basic things like the dialer, gallery app, contacts app and music player are still gross, or just completely inconsistant on stock Android. Yeah there are replacements in the market that are great, but who the hell wants to have to go to the market to replace tons of standard apps when they just bought a brand new expensive device? Google makes it really tough for me to sell Android to the general masses when I have to say "Yeah you can get a Droid 2 but lemme email you a list of apps that you need to download from the market to bring it up to speed to what an iphone offers."
    Plus, for all you vanilla Android evangelists out there: maybe if Google paid attention to the UI we'd stop seeing so many OEMs skinning their phones. I'd love to see that happen. And I'd love to buy a stock Android phone but until they fix these problems, I'm sticking with Sense.

    Also, great article. Keep em coming.

    • http://www.google.com/profiles/vkelman Vladimir Kelman

      Many people and I among them thinks that stock Android is actually better. really straightforward and easy to learn.

      • http://www.toysdiva.com PixelSlave

        1000% agree with Vladimir on the stock Android being better.

      • allajunaki

        This is what I love about Android.
        I have to disagree with you. I think Sense UI of HTC makes Android that much better. SENSE does plug in a lot of gaps in Stock Google, like the dialer and HTC's people, which is miles ahead of any contact management system out there.

        Aesthetically too SENSE has an edge over stock android. And all this without trading off speed or battery life.

        But yes, I prefer stock over Touchwiz (which my dad has), or MotoBlur, atleast from the videos.

  • http://www.toysdiva.com PixelSlave

    >> Plus, for all you vanilla Android evangelists out there: maybe if Google paid attention to the UI we’d stop seeing so many OEMs skinning their phones. I’d love to see that happen.

    Huh, well, personally I can't stand for the Sense UI for a sec. It's so overwhelming. Look, I don't mind the manufacturer messing with the stuffs you are talking about: the dialer, the gallery app, the contact apps, etc. They are fine as long as they are supplied as an APP.

    But many OEMs go beyond supplying APP, they actually skin some fundamental UI elements to a point that I can't even recognize them. Use the example I mentioned above when I tried to change my friend's input method. The pop up from the myTouch 4G is so different from the stock UI that it took me a few seconds to recognize it. Ok, let's say I can even accept that, but the problem is, the UI from the myTouch isn't better. First of all, it pops up A LOT slower than my old Droid(1). Secondly, the text is absolutely too small for many people.

    There's one thing I want to point out -- just because something "look" better doesn't mean they "work" better.

    • Dan

      Oh, wow there are so many things about the standard Sense UI that work AND look better than Google's implementation. Copy and paste on Froyo in the browser, for instance. The contacts app, the smart dialer....many things. In your example you referred to the Espresso UI on the MyTouch which I would agree is over the top and cumbersome. But the standard Sense UI adds so many nice features and fixes many of Android's shortcomings like copy and paste. I realize Google has partially fixed this in Gingerbread but I'm tired of companies like HTC being forced to pick up the slack.

      Another example: app switching. In Android it's basically hidden. Very few non-techies know to hold down the home button. Sense 2.0 (and some ROMs I believe) fix this issue buy putting your most recent apps in a scrollable menu in the notification bar. Google would do well to copy this.

      I just think there's a lot of room for improvement; HTC has seen this and in many ways is filling in the gaps. But I wish Google would have maybe fixed some of these issues instead of concentrating on silly crap like NFC, which has almost zero uses right now.

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/vkelman Vladimir Kelman

    "By just about any standards, AOSP Android has never really been attractive. In fact, I’d even say I think it has always been the least attractive smartphone OS, by a long shot. The lame UI that’s plagued Android may be the most obvious shortcoming, but it’s not the only issue. For example, sliding between homescreens was noticeably laggy until Gingerbread. The lockscreen is still utterly lackluster, and the OS still lacks many transition effects."

    V.K. To me, this part is essentially a BS. I used ADP1 for nearly a one and half year before upgrading to Nexus One. It was slow, but certainly not ugly. And very functional too.
    I don't understand what Android Police author has with "transition effects". It looks like for him useless visual effects play strangely significant role.

    A citation from Joshua Topolsky (Engadget):
    " Google still has major issues with text selection and editing on Android devices . The first striking problem is that there is not a consistent method of selecting text on the device. None. At all."

    V.K. Personally, I found that xScope browser implemented the best text selection mechanism on Android. You long-press a menu button, choose text selection and then select text using two beautiful easy to grab greenish handles, marking start and end points of selection. You can adjust both points independently. Then just click on select button which appears on a screen.
    To me it is better than variations with long-press on a screen itself, which is too overloaded and performs different actions in different applications.
    I must say, that Joshua Topolsky is not exactly right: selecting a text on a static page and selecting it inside input boxes are different. I'm not sure they can have identical interface.

    "there are issues with the system just not performing as expected from time to time. For example, if you get a text message and open it from the status bar, then hit back, it takes you back to the homescreen, rather than back a menu to the messaging conversation list. I already have a dedicated home button; if I wanted to go back to the homescreen, I’d hit that. Even worse, the same thing happens sometimes when you open the messaging app: it opens directly to the last thread you had open, and when you hit back, you’re once again back to the homescreen. The first case I can at least understand from a strictly logical point of view, but the second just makes no sense no matter which way you look at it."

    V.K. Sure, if you get a text message and open it from the status bar, then hit back, it takes you back to the homescreen. It's strictly logical cannot be different. Back always gets you to a previous Activity, right? Hit menu button if you want to stay in messaging system.
    For a second example, which is also understandable, there could be an adjustment developed. I'm not sure it is necessary, but: I think messaging app could be modified in such a way that it would internally always start from its main screen but would automatically switch behind the seen to the last thread you had open. Now, if you hit back button it would return to its main screen and show it instead of going to home screen.
    Such issues are pretty common for web application development, because browser also features back button.

    " there are times when a recently used app doesn't appear in recent apps. Case in point: Google Talk. If you don’t have Google Talk open, receive a message, and open it via the status bar, Talk doesn’t show up in your recent apps – even though you just used it. The same issue is encountered when using apps indirectly – for example, if you’re in the Gallery and share an image via imgur, the imgur app opens. But once you’re finished with your sharing, the app isn’t in recent apps. Ditto for composing a tweet from share."

    V.K. While I could probably hint why it happens, I think it's a real usability issue. It hits me very often when I share something on Buzz using my Nexus One.
    A scenario:
    You found something interesting on Web, selected text, hit "Share" and went to DHS Buzz. Here you realized you want more text to select and copy. You can hit Back or hit Home and open browser again and then select more text. Then you long-press on Home button and.... DHS Buzz is not in a list of recent apps.
    If you used Google Mobile Buzz app instead, posted your share, hit back button to go to browser and then decide to add something to your Buzz post, you will be able to pick Google Mobile Buzz among recent apps, but it would open Buzz app itself, not a browser window with your recent buzz post.

    http://goo.gl/ZtxtQ

  • John J

    I agree with most of the points in the article, nicely written.

    Google has been doing a great job with Android upgrades, each version seems to bring something huge with it. Hopefully some UI upgrades are in the works.

    Consistency throughout the core Android functions is something Google really needs to get on. And seriously, the lottery-style back button functionality needs to be fixed.

    Unfortunately, I think that it's a necessity to allow each phone vendor to provide their own skin. As much as I hate them, and as often as they suck, they are there to differentiate the devices. The fact is, Android wouldn't be on as many devices as it is if all the phone vendors had to compete with was hardware.

    • http://www.google.com/profiles/vkelman Vladimir Kelman

      "the lottery-style back button functionality" is just plain wrong. It might be not always most convenient, but Back button always works the same - it displays a previous activity in a chain.

      • John J

        Which is fine from a technical standpoint. You and I can understand why it does what it does, but the point isn't to sell phones to us. The point is that Google is selling phones to the masses, the consumers, who aren't as technical as most people reading this site - they won't care that it's logical.

        The back button should be intuitive to someone just picking up an Android phone for the first time. When the average person opens an app that has been drilled down, they intuitively hit the back button to try and go back up a level. My mother does it all the time on her Galaxy S, my fiancee does it when she uses my phone, everybody who uses my phone does it - so I know it's an issue for the average user. There should be a graceful implementation of understanding where in the app hierarchy you currently are, and that should take first priority over returning to the home screen.

        The fact is, when you're trying to sell to millions of people, you have to look at things from more angles than just engineering. Those "useless visual effects" as you put it, will sell phones. They are the lustre on the product that will make the consumer say "hey that's cool, I like that". Will it add functionality to Android? No. But it can't always be about functionality.

        Let's face it, when you compare the functionality of iOS to Android, iOS looks like a wet brick - but Apple still sells millions of them.

        • Vladimir Kelman

          John,
          I think your response is very reasonable. Although "Back" button behavior should be familiar to average users from their usage of web browsers on computers, sometimes it's still confusing and not convenient. As when application remembered it's drill-down position from it's previous usage and opens it directly from a home screen, so that hitting Back button returns to a home screen instead of going to application's main screen.
          I think it's not a simple technical problem to solve, but there is some possibility. In my web applications I make a single entry point, so that when user opens drilled-down screen a second time "directly", it only appears as being opened directly, but behind the scenes goes through single entry point. Manipulations with Session variables etc. allow then when a user clicks on Back button to go to application's main screen rather than to exit application. Android paradigm is similar to browser paradigm (which is great), so that similar user-friendly tricks might be implemented for Android.

          Transition effects are still a BS :)

        • http://www.toysdiva.com PixelSlave

          Agree with John. What makes sense technically may not make sense in real world usage.

          The fact is, each application is different, some times going back to the previous activity makes sense. Some times it doesn't. There should be a way for app developer to override that behavior.

        • Vladimir Kelman

          So, we agreed that in fact Back button behavior in Android is perfectly consistent, but sometimes it is better to break this consistency from usability point of view. That is quite different from the assertion this article maid.
          Now, those user-friendly diversions from the default Android-provided consistency cannot be built into Android, because they are specific. Still, common use-cases should be recognized and solutions described. It's an ongoing work, I hope.
          But Android itself provides all the facilities for making user experience comfortable. Here's what an expert Android developer said,
          "The back button behaviour can indeed be overridden. All you have to do is implement the method Activity.onBackPressed(), as explained in the documentation on this URL: http:// developer.android.com/reference/android/app/ Activity.html#onBackPressed()

          Here's the relevant quote:
          public void onBackPressed ()

          Since: API Level 5

          Called when the activity has detected the user's press of the back key. The default implementation simply finishes the current activity, but you can override this to do whatever you want."

        • John J

          Actually, I still argue that the back-button is implemented crookedly. There are numerous apps that I can open, hit the back button, and have them drill up, instead of returning to the previous screen. Likewise, numerous other times that these same apps will return to the previous screen instead of drilling up.

        • http://webofandroids.blogspot.com/ Vladimir Kelman

          John,
          That's interesting. Could you maybe supply some concrete examples? I might have these apps installed too or I can install some to see it.
          It may be that authors of those apps overrode Back-button behavior in their apps and did it in a wrong way.
          If you like to communicate directly, I'm vkelman ... living at ... gmail.
          Thanks

  • crankypaul

    I entered the fray in late summer of '10 finally retiring my old flip phone. I'm not on the cutting edge of tech at least in the possession department. Soon after I git my Samsung Galaxy S I discovered that there was an upgrade to 2.2 available. After much investigation I found that the upgrades were only available as each carrier made them so and it was dependent on the specific phone as well. I have AT&T out of necessity of their coverage and apparently they STILL have not made 2.2 available for us. The rumors are that we'll be going directly to 2.3, but until that happens I remain less than impressed. The system itself seems fine, and for as much as I have delved the depths of my phone, it appears to work beautifully. The niggle in my bonnet is that lack of a uniform upgrade policy and/or possibility.

  • Ruperto

    Good stuff. I couldn't agree more. Where's part 3??

    • Aaron Gingrich

      Well thank you! Part 3 was started a few days ago, but wasn't finished until it was too late today. It will go up tomorrow instead.

      Thanks again :)

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