- Fixes And Updates From Last Time
- More Broken Stuff
- Settings Shortcuts Suck
- Google Music Is A Mess
- The Menus Are Impossible To Figure Out
- The 'Now Playing' Screen Is Useless
- Portrait and Landscape Function Completely Differently
- They Forgot The Action Bar Title
- It's Still Tron Themed
- The Camera's New Quick Controls Require A Transparent Thumb
- Widgets Use The Worst Possible List Style
- The "Timer" Voice Action Doesn't Actually Use The Timer
- The Lock Screen's Buggy Keyboard Arrow
- Adding A Word To The Dictionary Is Clunky
- Does The Gallery Get A Notification Bar, Or Not?
- YouTube Breaks Auto Rotation
A few months ago I wrote "Stock Android Isn't Perfect," an article where I turned my usual harsh UX critique on stock Android, instead of just picking on TouchWiz and Sense all the time in my reviews. The article went over pretty well, and even got a few responses from Googlers! I didn't cover everything that was wrong with Android, though, and there have been a bunch of updates since the original article, so it's about time I wrote a sequel.
So we're officially making this a series now, and it'll serve two purposes: One, there's a new version of Android out, and more things to complain about; and two, to give credit where it's due, because, since I wrote that article, a lot of things have been fixed. Just like last time, this isn't just the base AOSP stuff; Android plus all the Google Apps are fair game.
I'll say the same thing I said in the first article: I criticize because I care. You can't be a blind fanboy all the time. Being able to have an open and honest discussion of the imperfections of your favorite piece of software goes a long way towards improvement, and it's with that in mind that we lay bare the faults of Android.
Fixes And Updates From Last Time
Before we drive into the new stuff, we should take a look at the old list and see if anything has been fixed. After all, one of the best parts of Android is the ridiculously fast rate of updates. Not only do we usually get 2 updates per year, Google also delivers a significant trickle of app updates through the Play Store. Part of the reason I wanted to list Android's flaws was so I could also keep track of those flaws over time. Doing this reveals Android's real rate of improvement, and it is truly impressive.
So here's the current progress report. I'll point out what's been fixed, and, while I won't run down the entire list of things that aren't fixed, I have a few extra bits of commentary and updates for the unfixed issues.
Not Fixed: The Back Button - Let's Just Rename It "Shuffle"
Really, nothing has changed regarding the unpredictable behavior of the back button. It's still horribly confusing for a normal person. Most people just consider it an "anywhere but here" button, so I suggest we just rename it "shuffle" and tweak the icon a bit.
Often the unpredictability is the fault of the individual apps, but that excuse doesn't really work for me when we're looking at Google apps on a Google OS. Why is the back button programmable, anyway? I've yet to see an example where allowing developers to screw with the back button is a good thing. All it seems to accomplish is a lack of consistency. I vote we just nuke all Back button programmability and make it work like the back button on a browser: it always goes to the previous screen, and no one can ever mess with it. That's easy, useful, and predictable.
And while we're on the subject of the back button, did you notice this? Apparently the art department had some kind of vector snafu which left the back button with a dark blemish where the shaft meets the head. How much this stands out on an actual device depends on the type of display and the quality of your eyesight, but on some devices, it looks like you have 2 dead pixels in the middle of your back button. If you're an OCD type and you've never noticed this before, you're welcome.
Not Fixed: Navigation Is Gingerbread-Themed, But iOS's Version Is The Future
There is also nothing new to report regarding the sorry state of Google Maps Navigation, but when it does finally get its inevitable revamp, we at least have a good idea of what it should look like, thanks to Apple.
Late last year, the Maps team released a stunning iOS app in response to Apple taking over the default iOS Maps application. The Maps team came up with an all-new design that completely outclasses the Android version. It's like Google Now and Google Maps had a beautiful baby - everything uses clean, white cards, fluid animation, and intuitive swipe gestures. We should be jealous. Google, please bring something like this to Android. The Holo UI style has been out for a year now. Navigation, one of your most popular features, should have been the first to make the switch, not the last.
Partially Fixed: Recent Apps Getting Confused
Here's a good step toward improvement. Last time, I came up with a few apps-launching-other-apps shenanigans that completely screwed up the Recent Apps listings. It culminated in this ridiculous video, which shows a Recent Apps listing with a Gmail icon and Gmail message thumbnail launching the Gallery and displaying a picture:
I'm happy to say, this one got fixed. Here's the play by play of what used to happen:
In the above example, when you open a picture attachment and navigate somewhere else (for instance, home), the Recent Apps list would display a thumbnail for the Gmail message, but tapping on it would bring up the attachment in the Gallery app. The thumbnail never updated, and said it was taking you to the Gmail message, when it would actually take you to the Jelly Bean image. Tapping on the Gmail entry in the right picture would trigger the crazy scene in the video.
Here's what happens now:
With Gmail 4.2, Gmail has its own, dedicated image viewer, and when you open an image and check out the recent apps list, it now correctly displays the attachment thumbnail, instead of the Gmail message. What used to be a crazy, confusing flaw has now totally been fixed.
Other fun new behavior: Unlike the Gallery, Gmail's new image viewer doesn't stretch the image to full screen. That Jelly Bean logo is only 175x267; stretching it to fill a 1280x768 screen is not a good idea.
The other super-annoying thing I demoed was this Google-Reader-to-YouTube example, in which the Recent Apps thumbnail (right picture) would display a Google Reader icon and thumbnail, but open the YouTube video. If your video was interrupted and you wanted to navigate back to it, you'd never be able to find it.
This was tweaked a little bit, but still isn't totally fixed:
Now you'll get a thumbnail from YouTube with a name and icon from Google Reader. This is still wrong, but it's better than before. Now you at least stand a chance of ignoring the icon and using the thumbnail to find your video again.
Of course, the right way to do this would be to spawn YouTube and Google Reader Recent Apps listing when you do this. That's the only thing that really makes sense - I was using one app, opened another app via a link, so both apps should be listed.
Still though, this is progress, progress is good.
Getting Fixed: Inconsistent Icon Sizes
In the first article, I pointed out that Android's icon sizes were seriously out of whack. Sizes ranged from 94 pixels high to 72. That's a 30% difference between the largest (Local) and smallest (Movie Studio) icons. To illustrate this, I lined them up the icons, alternating tallest and shortest. It was a mess:
If you want to fix this, you need to either make the big icons smaller, or the small icons bigger, and it seems Google's plan is to 'deal with' the little guys. Since I made this image, the top 3 smallest - Movie Studio, Latitude, and Messenger - have been fixed, along with Google+, the 6th smallest. Check it out:
Everything is not only bigger; the new icons are all the same size. Well, they're very close to the same size. Movie Studio and Messenger are 87 pixels, and G+ is 88. That's much better than before. If I slap the new icons on top of the old ones in my old picture, you get something that looks like this.
That looks like a much more cohesive family of icons, doesn't it? The new runt of the litter is actually the new Camera icon that came with 4.2, weighing in at only 73 pixels high. It is a camera, though, and cameras are not (and should not be) square, so I'm willing to cut it some slack. The new camera icon is actually shorter than the old one, though. That's going backwards.
The second smallest is the Navigation icon, coming in at only 75 pixels. This gives me yet another complaint to add to the list for Google Maps Navigation. Hey Googlers, when you guys finally rewrite the entire Navigation UI from scratch, update the icons, too.
This is great progress though; more icons are close to the same size. It's great to see. Just keep picking off the little guys. The new short list is Camera, Navigation, Play Movies, and Drive. Fixing the Camera icon is kind of tough, but the other 3 would work just fine if they got hit with an enlarge ray.
Fixed: Play Store Scroll Location
Digging through search results in the Play Store used to be really painful. When you looked at an app in your search results and hit back, it wouldn't remember your scroll location - you'd be bumped to the top of the list. Now it remembers, you can check out an app in the list, hit back, and you'll still be at the same spot in your list.
Fixed: Gtalk Messages Are Pointless Buttons
In Messaging, the stock texting app, you can long press on a message and copy it. In Google Talk, you could press on the messages, and the message will turn blue, but you never get an option to do anything with it. This was silly. I was hoping they'd add the ability to copy Google Talk messages, but instead Google just disabled the highlight effect. That works for me. Fixed.
I Think Google Is Trolling Us: The Calculator's Delete/Clear button
In 4.1 the calculator's clear button was way too large and didn't line up in a nice grid with the other buttons. In 4.2 Google shrunk the button down, but they shrunk it way too far, so it still isn't in a uniform grid.
Fixed: The Uninstall Interface Is Half Popup and Half Full Screen
Left: The first uninstall screen for both versions | Center: The 4.1 "finished" screen | Right: The 4.2 "finished" Screen
The uninstall interface used to be half popup and half full screen, but in 4.2, the "Uninstall Finished" screen was completely replaced with a little toast popup (right picture). This was one of my favorite features of third party skins and launchers. Uninstalling apps feels a lot faster without the pointless "OK" screen.
More Broken Stuff
It hasn't been all roses and sunshine in Android land, there are still quite a bit of things that suck. First, there's a bunch of stuff that escaped my wrath the first time and deserves to be called out. There's also been a whole new version of Android released since the last article, and not all of the new UI decisions are fully baked.
Settings Shortcuts Suck
Have you ever noticed the Settings shortcuts are horrible navigational hacks? Either when used as an icon or from the Quick Settings panel, they are just broken in all kinds of ways. For instance, they never, ever spawn a Recent Apps entry:
You can just tap away, and the Recent Apps panel never notices you opening an app. This is really confusing if you don't know about it and start hunting in Recent Apps for that setting you were just messing with. This bug was pretty low key, because almost no one used the icons, but now with settings shortcuts being front and center with the Quick Settings Panel, a lot of people are going to experience this.
The other annoying thing about Settings shortcuts is that the screens they don't have "Up" buttons in the action bar. Check out these two screenshots. The one on the left was opened normally, so it has an Up button carat next to "Bluetooth," the one on the right was opened via a shortcut, so it doesn't have a carat next to the icon. So if you open the settings via a shortcut, there's no way to go to the main settings page - tapping on the icon won't do anything. Weird.
Google Music Is A Mess
While Google Maps is my favorite app to beat up on, but Music is a close second. It's so bad it's going to get its own section! Starting with the Menus:
The Menus Are Impossible To Figure Out
Google Music's menu system needs to DIE. It is impossible to wrap your head around. There are THREE different menus that pop up depending on which view you're in, and there is really no logic as to what option is on what view.
Above we have the menus for an individual song in the Queue, Song list, and Artist list. These are the 3 sets of similar-but-not-identical menus that are just randomly used throughout Google Music. If the only difference between them were view-specific options like "Remove from queue," that would be fine, but core song management options are randomly missing from some screens.
The queue has "Instant Mix," "Delete," and "More By Artist," but it's missing "Keep on device." Songs has "Instant Mix" and "Delete," but it's missing "More By Artist" and "Keep on device." Artists has "Keep on device" and "More By Artist" but it's missing "Instant Mix" and "Delete." There is no rational justification for certain options being omitted from certain screens; it's just a mess. The best part is that the Artists screen shows "More by artist" when you are already looking at everything by that artist. It just shows the same information in a slightly different view.
And strangely, they all have "Play" as an option, despite the fact that a simple tap will start playing them. This might be the way right-click menus work on computers, but that never made the jump to phones. It's not like you can long press on a Gmail message and choose "Open." Adding every song management option to every song screen would make the menus slightly larger, so "Play" is the first thing I would cut.
If you'd like an example of just how confusing this is when you're trying to use Google Music, try this pop quiz: You want to delete this song. Is the "Delete" option under door number 1, 2, 3, or 4? This is the problem every Google Music user has to deal with every time they want to do something. And this is just for the 2 Artists screens; the other screens have a million menus like this, too. (The correct answer is #4, no other arrow has "Delete" as an option.)
The reality of all of this menu mayhem is that the options like "Delete" and "Keep on device" seem impossible to find. You will never keep a model of this in your head, so when you need one of these options, you just randomly wander from view to view hoping to stumble across it. It's frustrating.
The 'Now Playing' Screen Is Useless
The disorganized menu system is further exacerbated by the completely useless "Now Playing" interface. There are no song management options here at all.
The overflow button's only options are navigational (Equalizer, Instant Mix, Settings, Help) or, strangely, queue-related. The fact that it is offering to "clear queue" and "save queue" from this view is completely insane, because I cannot see the queue at all. Why would you want to clear or save the queue when you can't even see it? (You might be able to see the queue from this screen on a tablet, but that doesn't make it ok on a phone, especially when phones are the majority.)
Now Playing is probably the only screen on Google Music that does not have another set of options somewhere, and that is sorely needed. There is absolutely no way to manage a song from this screen. This fails spectacularly for so many situations: "I hate this song and want to delete it," or "I love this song and want it on my device all the time" or "Yes, let me add this to my 'party' playlist." You can't act on any of that from this screen; that is all hidden somewhere else. You have to go on a menu scavenger hunt.
All of the song stuff needs to be accessible from here. That means "Delete," "Keep on my device," "Add to queue," "Add to playlist," "Make instant mix," "More by artist," and "Shop for artist." I am currently looking at/listening to this song - I need options for it. Imagine if Gmail didn't have Archive/Delete/Reply while looking at an email and you had to go back to the inbox to do any of those actions. That's basically what's going on here.
Portrait and Landscape Function Completely Differently
Learn all of Google Music's quirks in portrait mode, flip it sideways, and you have a completely different app with things in different locations.
Just count the number of differences here. This is the same screen (Genres) in portrait and landscape.
Landscape scrolls horizontally; portrait scrolls vertically. Landscape is full of album art; portrait has none. Landscape has a scrollbar letter preview; portrait doesn't. Landscape doesn't have a status bar; portrait does.
Portrait uses horizontal swipes to navigate between views (Recent, Albums, Artists, etc.), and landscape uses an action bar drop down. An action bar drop down exists in portrait mode, but it only switches between "All Music" and "On Device" music.
Portrait and landscape differences are just the tip of the iceberg. It seems like no two screens in Google Music share a common anything. Every screen has its own style and its own rules. Sometimes you'll get 4 huge album thumbnails per screen, sometimes 8. Sometimes they'll be in a swoopy, 3D 'curve,' and sometimes you won't get any album art at all.
All of this just continues to add to the inconsistent mess that is Google Music. I really don't think there is any human out there that can confidently use this program or predict where things are or how things work on any given screen. Your best bet is to pick one screen and one orientation, learn it, and ignore all the others.
They Forgot The Action Bar Title
This is the example of a good action bar, from the official Android Design web site. We're mostly concerned with label #2; what Google calls "View control." I usually call it the "title."
There tends to be two versions of action bar title: There's the Gmail version, which uses the action bar as an informative navigational element. It displays where you are (for instance, "Inbox"), and tapping on opens a drop down that allows you to navigate to other places ("All Mail," "Labels," etc.). The Play Store uses the action bar title another way - it's just a text object that shows you where you are ("My Apps," "Settings," etc.).
Google Music screws this up completely. Sure, in some screens it's a navigational element, in others it's a static, "you are here" element, but in some screens it's missing completely. Check out these two shots, there's just a mass of blank space there. How about "Now Playing" and "Song Queue" as titles? That would look significantly less broken than a big empty space.
It's Still Tron Themed
This is indicative of the core of all of Google Music's problems: neglect. Sure, Google Music gets the occasional bug fix update, but it's been a very long time since someone at Google critically looked at this app.
Google Music was birthed on the Motorola Xoom as the oddly-named "Music Beta by Google." At the time, the Xoom was running Honeycomb, a Tron-inspired, all-blue OS that I like to refer to as "Android's awkward teenager phase." Google Music was designed to fit into this environment, and, while every other app has outgrown the sharp-edged, blue-laser aesthetic, Google Music is still all about "non-conformity" and has stubbornly stayed blue.
One of these things is not like the others
I don't know if you've noticed, but the Tron look is dead. Everything is white now. Check out this lineup of Google Apps and tell me which one doesn't fit. It's time for Google Music to get with the program and go for a white base, like everything else.
The Tron aesthetic doesn't even match the rest of Google Music. Music.google.com uses a perfectly sane-looking white background with black text. That looks much better than the crazy blue theme. Check out the web app next to the Android app; that doesn't look like a unified, cohesive UI to me.
You know what? Here, I'll do it:
This is a mockup I whipped up in an afternoon. This is what Google Music should look like - a white base with black text just like the rest of Android. It's nice looking, it's readable, it matches the web app, and it doesn't look like a sci-fi space ship. It's mature. That's all I'm asking. After Google is done beating the Gingerbread out of Google Maps Navigation, they should focus on the next-ugliest-duckling in their lineup and bring Google Music's design into the year 2013.
And while they're fixing the design style, I hope they at least try and make the app usable by a normal human being. Pick a display style and apply it to as many screens as possible. Make all the song management options available in every song menu, and add them to the now playing screen. Make the app work the same in landscape as it does in portrait. Just stop being so inconsistent.
The Camera's New Quick Controls Require A Transparent Thumb
Quick controls from the old stock browser were a neat idea: slide your thumb inward from the edge of the screen and a set of radial browser controls would fan out from your fingertip. Sliding your thumb over an option would highlight it, and activating something only required lifting your thumb off of the desired option. It was a unique, decently-designed interface that took up minimal screen real estate and was enjoyable to use.
When Google made the switch from the stock Browser to Chrome, quick controls never made the cut. The idea didn't die though, when it came time to design the new Camera controls in Android 4.2, Team Android decided to resurrect this idea for the UI. There was only one problem; rather than arrange everything in a semi-circle, like the Browser quick controls, they arranged the options in a full circle. This is wrong.
It only takes a few minutes of playing with the new Camera to see why 360° quick controls are a bad idea: you can't see through your thumb. The browser fanned everything out in a half circle, away from your thumb. On the right side of the screen it would fan out to the left, and on the left side it would fan out to the right - it was perfect. The bits of human connecting your fingertip to the rest of your body never obscured the on-screen controls.
The Camera quick controls seem to be designed for use by some kind of disembodied fingertip that doesn't have to worry about human parts getting in the way. Arranging everything in a circle means the options at 6 and 5 o'clock are going to be covered by your thumb. In the picture on the right, there are six total options in the circle. Good luck figuring out what the hidden two are.
This probably worked great using a mouse on an emulator, but this should have been scrapped after one real world test. I have a challenge for whoever designed this: use it to adjust the white balance.
I'm not saying using this is impossible, but the stock browser implementation was so much better! Why did they screw it up so badly?
Luckily, none of this is a huge deal, because tapping on the circle in the lower right will bring the options up in a regular, tappable UI mode. This is what most people probably resort to after fighting with the lower options a few times.
I just wish I could disable the camera quick controls, because, in addition to controls along the top and bottom of the circle, swiping right to left will bring up the Gallery. If you try to do this quickly and move your thumb in a slightly upward or downward motion, you'll trigger one of the quick control options instead of opening the Gallery. There have been so many times when I imperfectly swipe to the left, and instead of seeing the Gallery, I trigger quick controls and launch the front facing camera.
Widgets Use The Worst Possible List Style
At the core of every app is a list - a list of contacts, a list of music, a list of apps, a list of emails, a list of Facebook statuses. Just about every app uses a list, and sometimes these lists get rather lengthy. Luckily, Android is very good at displaying big lists, and has several great ways of dealing with them when you have to scroll large distances.
1: Lists are always flingable. A quick swipe up or down will send the list quickly scrolling in that direction and, if that's not fast enough for you, you can keep swiping and you'll add to the momentum of the list.
2: Long lists will usually have a grabbable scroll bar. If flinging is too much work, tap and hold the scroll bar, and you can fly from the top to the bottom of the list in one second.
3: If the list is alphabetical, there will often be a pop-up letter preview, allowing you to zip right to the letter you want in a second or two.
All of these features greatly help with navigation through a long list, and even if you have a million contacts, finding someone isn't that big of a deal. Android is awesome at displaying long lists. Google has this figured out...
Except when it comes to the Widget drawer. It's a huge list, and it gets bigger every time you install an app. For some reason, Google chose to use absolutely none of these handy list management features when it came up with the design for the widget drawer.
This thing is a piece of crap. There is no way to accelerate your way through the list. You get a page of 6 thumbnails, and then you can swipe over, where you get a page of 6 more thumbnails. I have a very minimal suite of apps - less than 3 pages in the app drawer - and I still have fifteen pages of widgets. That means if I want to get to a newly installed weather widget, that's fifteen swipes to the right - there's no way to get there any faster. And, again, I'm on the low end of this - I'm sure there are some widget enthusiasts out there that can easily hit 30 pages.
Why does the widget drawer discard every method Android has for easily navigating a large list? It's not flingable, you can't grab the scroll bar, and there's no search function; it's a complete disaster. You should never ask anyone to make 15 swipe gestures to get to something they want. This page idea is fine for the app drawer, which is very dense and will rarely go above 5 pages, but it is completely wrong for the widget drawer. It only displays 6 widgets per page, and many apps have multiple widgets. Pure Calendar, for instance, has 14 widgets, that's more than 2 pages just from just 1 app. The widget list is going to get very large, very fast.
One of the first things a home replacement app does is throw out the unusable widget drawer and replace it with the list on the left. This is a much saner implementation of the widget list that takes advantage of Android's list prowess with a flingable, vertical list. They also reduce the size of the list by stacking multiple widgets from the same app under one listing - both of these are great ideas. I understand the utility of the thumbnail previews; so Googlers, if you want to keep those, just take a look at the Google Music app, it has several examples of displaying a list of thumbnails in a manageable form.
They had a million options for the design of the widget list, and chose the slowest, least user friendly option. Copying the app drawer for something this large not a good idea. Scrap it.
The "Timer" Voice Action Doesn't Actually Use The Timer
Here's a fun one: Use Voice Actions to set a timer, then actually time it. You told it xx minutes, but does it actually give you xx minutes, exactly? No. It doesn't. The "Set a timer" voice action actually sets an alarm, so it is only accurate to the minute. This is most noticeable on shorter timer duration, like say, one minute. Observe:
Because it's really setting an alarm instead of a timer, it interprets "1 minute" as "the next minute." If you time it right, your "one-minute" timer will actually only last one second.
This is a leftover hack job from when Android had no timer app. In 4.2, Android received a beautiful new clock app, which included a built-in timer, so it's time to make voice actions use the timer app.
The Lock Screen's Buggy Keyboard Arrow
I don't actually use a lock screen, so if you're looking for someone to rip it to shreds, I'm not really your man. While initially testing it, however, I noticed it doesn't like to hide the keyboard back arrow. If you have the keyboard up while you lock the device, you'll often get this sorry sight.
Adding A Word To The Dictionary Is Clunky
Ever try adding a word to the dictionary? Type in your made-up word, tap the word in the keyboard suggestion panel, tap the word in the keyboard suggestion panel again, then confirm again that you really want to do this by tapping "OK" in the box that pops up.
Why is this so hard? This is at least 1 tap too many; it just feels so clunky. The crazy part is that the box that pops up in step 3 is editable as if you would want to type the word in, tap on it twice, and then finally decide to change something at the last minute. A double tap in the word suggestion panel would be fine, and not feel like a chore.
Does The Gallery Get A Notification Bar, Or Not?
Left picture: Launching the Gallery from its icon. Right picture: launching the Gallery from the camera. One gets a status bar and one doesn't. Why would you ever hide the status bar in portrait, anyway? The Nexus 4 takes 4:3 pictures and displays them on a 16:10 screen, so it's not like you are going to need that vertical space. Landscape is a different story; there the Gallery always hides the status bar.
YouTube Breaks Auto Rotation
Everyone watches YouTube in landscape, right? Have you ever noticed, if you let a video finish in landscape, it forces the screen to portrait, and it won't go back? So if you ever want to watch a video twice, or just want to get your phone (and status bar) back to landscape, you have to either leave this screen, or flip the phone to portrait and back to landscape.
The worst is when you are trying to show a video to a group, and want to hit the replay button after the video finishes so more people can see it. The replay button is basically useless, because the video will always be sideways the second time.
That's it for this batch of imperfections. Hopefully someone in Google Land is hard at work at fixing this stuff. Like I said earlier, the best part of Android is its phenomenal rate of improvement, which is all thanks to the group of hardworking developers Google has assembled. Android has come a long way in just a few years, and will hopefully only get better. I think Matias Duarte put it best in response to the first version of this article:
It's true, we still have a lot of work to do. Personally I feel like I've gotten only about a third of the way to where I want to be with regards to consistency, responsiveness, and polish.
Better get back to work!
So kudos to the devs that work on Android and have to put up with picky users like me. You guys are the best... Now get back to work!
So, did I miss anything here or in the first article? What bugs you about Android? Let's hear it in the comments.