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Besides a bevy of new features, Android's update to 4.4 brought forth a ton of tweaks to the interface through GEL launcher and a fresh round of updated stock apps. There's little doubt Android's user experience and overall design paradigms are continuing to evolve, becoming more refined, usable, and useful. We covered most of the changes to the interface in Getting to Know Android but, as with any major update, new changes come with new opportunities for error.

There are plenty of incongruences, inconsistencies, and lingering design problems in Android 4.4, and just like previous entries in the Stock Android Isn't Perfect series, we'll be running through those of note.


This time around, we'll segment the post into a few categories, starting with an overview of what's been fixed since the last SAIP, and continuing on to remaining (or new) issues from high-level to fine-grained. Before we get started though, I should emphasize that SAIP - like GTKA - is a living document - there are bound to be things big or small that have as yet gone unnoticed, so should we learn of anything else, we'll be sure to discuss it as it pops up.

Fixes and Updates

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of what's problematic in Android 4.4, we should take a quick look at some of the things that have been updated, fixed, changed, or not changed since our last Stock Android... post. Our last post covered Android 4.2, so a few of the things mentioned in that post were wiped clean in Android 4.3. In the interest of word economy, we won't discuss those (changes like Google Maps' overhaul, etc), but there's still plenty of ground to cover.

Fixed: Back Button Is No Longer Missing Two Pixels

The back button may still be a little confusing (we'll talk about that in a moment), but it is at long last fixed visually. The two pixels missing in previous versions of Android have finally been filled in.


Recent Apps Switcher

Last time, we discussed the fact that the recent app switcher had at least been partially fixed, displaying a screenshot thumbnail of the last activity you were doing, while in some cases displaying an icon and app name for the app that referred you to that activity rather than the app you were actually viewing. For example, if you searched in Chrome for a video, and got a link that popped you into the YouTube app, the app switcher would show Chrome's name and icon, but a screenshot from YouTube.


In reality, this makes sense because if you go to that switcher entry (in this case labeled Chrome) and press the back button, you'll jump back over to Chrome. It wouldn't make sense for Android to tell you you were in YouTube from a UX perspective, because if you go back to what you think is purely a YouTube instance and hit back only to go to Chrome, you'll be popping a marble into the "negative" UX jar.

Not Fixed (At All): Settings Shortcuts

Settings shortcuts, as discussed in SAIP 4.2, didn't spawn recent apps entries, so navigating back to the setting you were fiddling with isn't possible with the switcher. They also lacked upward navigation, so you couldn't get to other settings from the shortcut you'd opened. In some way, this made sense, since you weren't actually opening the full settings app, but it was hugely inconvenient. Sadly, neither of these things has been resolved in 4.4. With the Quick Settings panel firmly established as a staple of Android's overall interface, this behavior only becomes more problematic.

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Kind Of Fixed: Camera Controls and the Transparent Thumb

The camera controls are thankfully no longer a circle with settings hiding underneath your worldly, visible, opaque thumb. Now they are broad arcs that appear above your thumb. This is better, but it is still far from perfect. The way the settings work is this: a long press brings up an arc with settings. Entries with secondary options can be swiped over, bringing another - higher - arc up above that.

The problem here is that navigating up these settings is kind of like climbing a tree - it's much easier to get up than it is to get down. Other than simply letting go, there's no option to get down or out of these settings besides continuing an already-too-long swipe gesture. If you do choose to just let go, your finger had better be over the desired setting, because whatever you end up on will be selected when you lift your finger. Besides causing uncertainty, the camera's upward-climbing menu interface can be forced off the screen, as shown below.

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Up, up, and away!

Of course, you can always tap the circle to the right of the shutter release, but that still segments the settings interface awkwardly into arcs. Plus, there's the fact that the control ring is off-center with its touch highlight.

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One remaining gripe with the camera app is that - as DP Review pointed out in their review - the viewfinder actually shows a cropped version of the photo you'll actually get. This makes some sense since the phone's display and the final image have different aspect ratios, and a full-screen viewfinder is prettier than having letterboxes, but I can't help but feel there's a more elegant solution to this design problem.

Not Fixed: Widget Picker and Horizontal Pagination

In short, the widget picker is still a horizontally-scrolling tile-based list view. For many people, widgets are one of the huge benefits to Android. They provide quick, at-a-glance access to information, and look pretty besides. Keeping this in mind, it would make sense to have an easy way to browse through your ever-growing selection. The current widget picker is not easy. There's no easy way to accelerate your journey through the list and no heuristic scrolling (a la the giant letter tabs that come up with scroll bars like in the People app).


I've heard legend of widget selectors with over 20 dots

Similarly, the app drawer is still horizontal. A simple way to zoom through apps and find the one you want would be a great convenience for those with lots of apps.

Kind Of Fixed: The Lock Screen's Weird Nav Bar

I say "kind of" fixed for this one because the arrow discussed last time (which persisted if a user pulled up a keyboard and then locked the screen) is no longer visible to the user. The remaining issue is with the notification shade. If you pull it down while on the lock screen, you get a back and home button. The home button does nothing (for obvious reasons) but the back button at least raises the notification shade back up.


Not Fixed: The "Timer" Voice Action Sets An Alarm

Sadly, though the clock app still explicitly contains a timer, Google Search will set an alarm rather than trigger a real timer in the appropriate app.


Not fixed: Gallery Can't Decide Whether it Needs a Status Bar

As discussed last time, opening the gallery from the camera puts you into a gallery view with no status bar, while opening it from its launcher icon gives you a status bar. The answer to this in KitKat is to swipe down to exit this partially immersive mode, but that seems messy - the gallery should either open in immersive mode all the time, or with a status bar all the time.

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Speaking of the gallery, Rehan brought up another issue in the comments below. If you swipe left to a photo from the camera app, you'll get an image with black letterboxes, but if you access the same image from the gallery by hitting its launcher icon, the letterboxes are gray. Why?

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Not Fixed: Google's Square Icons

Google has an issue with icon sizes. In some respect, I can understand why icon heights for all Google apps aren't the same - after all, each product has its own brand identity and language, some have drop shadows (of varying sizes), and there's no rule that icons have to be a certain maximum height. What's strange though is that Google's square icons (Search, Settings, and Google+) still aren't all the same size. They are all based on the same block, have roughly the same visual elements, but they're still not equal sizes. Why?


Fixed: Adding a Word to the Dictionary

Google's keyboard now lets you add a word to the dictionary with a simple two tap process. No more dialog popup!

YouTube No Longer Breaks Auto Rotation

These days, finishing a video in landscape on YouTube keeps you in landscape as long as you wish, switching to the page-with-tiny-video-in-the-corner layout.

Broad Strokes

Cards - Do They Really Foster Consistency?

Many stock Android apps (most famously the Play suite) have moved to card-based interfaces, or UIs that integrate cards in one way or another. Cards - at first glance - seem to foster a certain consistency of interface, and are meant primarily to offer a heuristic interface element for recognizing how content is divided and organized, as well as providing information about what content you are actually looking at. The issue is that, for all of their visual finesse, cards can be kind of a wreck in terms of consistency.

Let's look at three examples:

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These cards are all part of a visual hierarchy, and communicate certain key information, but they are inconsistent with one another. How users can interact with cards, what information they can expect to see there, what will happen if they hit the overflow button, and how/whether they can get rid of them are all different among many of the apps in which they appear.

The quick, at-a-glance understanding of what cards do and what can be done with them flies out the window, as users have to learn about specific instances in specific apps with specific implementations rather than having one knowledge set that helps them understand all cards. Perhaps the visual appeal of cards, in the minds of those designing with them, outweighs the fact that they suggest a consistency of interface that just isn't there, but in my mind, such a prominent UI element should have some basic rules across apps.

Touch Targets

With ever-increasing phone sizes, the ever-decreasing size of certain touch targets is almost understandable. But even on the Nexus 5's ample 4.95" display, it's clear that some targets are simply undersized. So much so that they are hard to press, or don't make sense as touch targets to users. This problem happened in the Play Store with buttons like "see more," but it was remedied by making a full-width rectangle the actual touch target for the button. This seems inelegant, as the delineation of a button should serve the purpose of telling the user that's what they press, not the whole row, title and all.


That being said, there are plenty of other examples. Information buttons in the dialer app, overflow menus on cards for Play content, and a button that perhaps hit the shrink ray unintentionally - the "up" navigation when searching in the clock app.

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Are We Ditching Holo Blue or Not?

One of the major design points of KitKat is the move toward white iconography and white action highlights. The white icons, as one Googler told us, make sense for the transparent bars, and provide a better overall experience. What's confusing though is why almost everything has been switched to white when there's still plenty of holo blue hanging around. Good old #33B5E5 can be found in settings toggles, the recent app switcher, the camera app, the end of albums in the gallery app, and the "settings>about phone>status" screen, among other places. Perhaps most oddly, checkboxes in the settings menu have gray assets for when they're touched, but are otherwise blue. DAE #BEBEBE?


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"Up" vs Back - It Works, But No One Knows Why

Much is made of Android's back button - it can be confusing, it can work inconsistently across apps, and it's never really explained to new users out of the box. It seems especially odd when paired with another backwards navigation element - the "up" navigation button.

In a perfect world, the back button takes you to the last view you saw, no matter where that is. The up button, meanwhile, should bring you up one level within the same app you're looking at. Try this: open the gallery from the camera app by swiping left. Then hit back. You're back at the camera, right? Okay, do the same thing but this time hit the gallery's up button. This should bring you to the gallery's home page. This is how it's supposed to work.

The problem with this is that it's never really explained to new users. I have a simple solution for this - a quick first run explanation after the device is set up. Just like Android tells you how to add icons to your home screen, it could give a succinct explanation of back and up when the time comes. Easy.

This would also be a good opportunity for Google to nudge developers in the right direction, as there are still plenty of instances where this paradigm isn't exactly followed in third-party apps.

Bugs, Glitches, And UI Slip-Ups

The Status Bar

The first problem with the status bar, which I can't help but see every time I glance at the battery or signal indicator. The icons and clock just don't quite align. The baselines of the bluetooth, signal icon, battery, and clock don't align with one another, and in fact the elements don't even appear to be aligned on a central guide with the status bar. Add to that the fact that the bars on the signal indicator don't visually appear to form a consistent slope, and you have the ingredients for a maddening status bar. Not that these things are like flashing red lights when backed by the translucent status bar, but a little alignment work would be great.


On the Nexus 5, where users enjoy transparent system bars (why, again, is GEL not included in the other Nexus updates?), the status bar has an extra problem - if you lock the screen with the notification tray pulled down, the bar will be partially opaque when the device is turned back on.


The Home Screen (GEL)

For all the wonderful tweaks GEL brings to the home screen, it's not without its faults. The first we'll discuss is a hidden trigger for the widget selector. If you open the app drawer and then hit home, the home screen's touch targets actually change for that fraction of a moment to those of the long-press screen, meaning triggers for wallpapers, widget selector, and Search settings are all there but invisible. This means that with a well-timed tap, you can access any of the three.


One of my main complaints with the launcher is that there's no way to have a blank homescreen. As someone who doesn't like to have much if anything on a home screen, I was glad to find out that there's a way to work around this, though it isn't pretty and it doesn't last. If you place an app icon on a home screen and uninstall that app, you're left with the empty home screen. It shows up on the indicator at the bottom of the screen as the plus sign, but this blank screen won't survive a reboot.

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Also of note is the fact that the launcher still doesn't rotate to landscape on phones. Not that I personally find this problematic, but I can understand why some users would desire this as a feature.

One last thing about the widget picker - its icon in the long-press menu from the home screen has unevenly spaced squares. Twitch.


Live Wallpaper is Set...Right?

Since finding (and falling in love with) Shape Swap live wallpaper, I've spent a lot of time switching into and out of the wallpaper picker. In 4.4 though, adjusting a live wallpaper's settings and hitting "apply wallpaper" will dump you back into the wallpaper picker interface, rather than the home screen. This can be confusing, implying that maybe you haven't actually selected a wallpaper yet. Oddly, this only happens if you've fiddled with a wallpaper's settings. If you select an LWP without any options, the picker will exit predictably.

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Lock Screen Camera is Both Big and Small

The left-swipe camera widget on the lock screen can be a huge convenience, but it too has a problem - if you swipe to the left, you'll see a full-page widget, but as soon as you let go, the actual widget part shrinks up to the 1/3 page size, while the camera interface remains full sized, and eventually transitions into the camera app.

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Lock Screen Security Smells of Gingerbread and Inconsistent Interface

There are a few problems with the lock screen security settings, though the actual user-facing interface has gone largely unchanged for a while now. When setting up a PIN, the text entry field still screams Gingerbread. This type of entry field appears nowhere else in stock Android that I can think of. Additionally, there's a "continue" button at the bottom with grayed out text, letting the user know what will happen next once they enter the PIN initially. This is good. The problem is that the same element is not found when entering a pattern. In fact, as soon as a user begins to draw a pattern, BOTH buttons lose their labels.

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Chrome's Scrolling Overflow

This one is pretty simple - if you've got no tabs open in Chrome and hit the overflow key, it's got a scrollbar, despite the fact that there's plenty of room to expand the menu.


Google Account Settings Span Multiple Apps

This is something left over from previous updates - entering settings for your Google account from the main settings page takes you - understandably - to another settings list, but selecting "Search" from this pops you into a completely different interface (the same one you'll see in GEL if you long press and hit "Settings"). What's more strange is that whether you press the "up" button in the action bar, or the back button down in the nav bar, you'll be dumped back out at your home screen.

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Wait, what?

Infinite Sort Menus

The new downloads app is lightyears ahead of the old downloads app from 4.3 and below. Some would argue that doesn't mean much considering the downloads app of yore was so absolutely spartan, but that's neither here nor there. What we'll discuss is a fun menu bug. If you use KitKat's new swipe-to-select paradigm on the "sort" menu while downloading something, you can spawn infinite sort menus, building up an ever-darkening drop shadow behind them. What's extra fun is that these can only be removed by interaction outside the menus, so tapping or swiping outside that area.


Empty Drawer in Downloads

Speaking of Downloads, it seems that - for some reason - there's a slide out drawer in the app (this only seems to work on the Nexus 5). It's empty, and there's no visual indicator of it in the main view, but still it's there.


Update: Some readers report that the slide-out menu won't work on their devices.

Full Screen Apps Kill Visual Feedback for Now Gesture

Normally, swiping up from the navigation bar triggers the dotted hint toward a big circular Google icon that will lead to Google Search. In full screen apps, however, swiping from any button but home doesn't provide visual feedback, but will still snap you into Search with just a brief vibration as warning.

Gmail's Crazy Gesture

We'll save most of the bugs and quirks in Google's suite of Gapps for another post, but there's one more worth pointing out right away. In Gmail, if you use the swipe-to-delete or swipe-to-archive gesture followed by a quick swipe up, Gmail will actually archive or delete the message your finger began the swipe-up gesture with, rather than the one you had intended.


Toast: Sharp or Round?

As we discussed in our last edition of GTKA, Android now has toast notifications with circular ends. This isn't always the case, though. For some reason, when deleting an alarm or archiving a hangout, you'll get a squared-off toast just like the old days.




Overflow Icons: Circles or Squares?

Overflow icons seem to be in a similar state of flux. While the system nav bar, along with apps like Google Search, the Play Store, and Play Music are using overflow icons comprised of three vertical circles, many stock apps (like Calendar, Calculator, etc) are still using squares.



Besides the obvious (or not-so-obvious) visual or functional inconsistencies in stock Android, there are some things that just seem to be missing from the OS altogether. Since these can't fairly be considered imperfections in themselves, we'll put them under the category of "wishlist," or things we'd like to see in stock Android.

A Better Power Menu

This one's a small request. A feature found in many ROMs (even in Samsung's TouchWiz), the humble "restart" option is missing from stock Android's power menu.


Expanded Volume Control For Phones

Expanded volume controls are great on tablets. Hit a volume rocker and you'll have the opportunity to press a settings icon allowing for the adjustment of media and notification volumes. On phones, it's another story. The volume rocker only handles one type of volume at a time, and in my experience, the Nexus 5's rocker gets stuck on media volume patrol all too often.

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More Control of the Home Screen

KitKat's launcher, it could be argued, has introduced one of the biggest shifts in home screen user experience since Ice Cream Sandwich came to phones. It's seemingly traded deep Search integration and beautiful system bars for more iOS-like screen handling, and customization that is both as empowering and as limiting as it has ever been.

Personally, the inability to have a blank home screen, along with the general lack of customizable options like home screen grid size, what gets done with newly installed apps, and folder limitations are irksome. Settings for things like these, even if they're hidden, would be greatly welcomed, and I have a feeling I'm not alone in this opinion. There's something to be said for the Android team's refinement of the home screen to make it as easy as possible for newcomers, but there's also something to be said for peppering in more of the customization options that make Android great, while not forcing users to choose between a limited stock launcher and one from a third party that can't get freaky with Search the same way GEL does.

Customization in Quick Settings

Another place where extra customization would be greatly welcomed is the Quick Settings shade. The addition of quick settings under the normal notification shade is great, but tailoring what settings appear there based on your own habits or desires would be excellent.

Combined Conversations in Hangouts

Hangouts is a sight for sore eyes, combining (most of) Google's messaging platforms into an easy-to-use app with some great functionality. Now that it's integrated SMS, though, communicating via SMS and Hangouts with one contact seems messier than it should be. A combined view, where a user can see all messages between themselves and a contact would be great. Each message would have a small, inconspicuous indicator (color, icon, or otherwise) to let the user know what kind of message it was, and a toggle that would tell Hangouts to send messages in the chosen method until it's switched again. This would cut down on list size, and offer at least some improvement to the experience of looking back through correspondences.

Final Thoughts

It's important to note that, as always, SAIP is written because we like Android and want to see its interface some day reach a state closer to perfection, free from some of the errant elements we've discussed here. By calling attention to the various errors, oversights, or questionable design decisions, we are hopefully making ourselves part of their ultimate solutions.

As mentioned earlier, there are no doubt other relevant quirks and mishaps in Android 4.4's interface that we haven't yet discussed here. Should those arise (do you know of one we missed?) we'll definitely discuss them and possibly add them to the post.

Thanks Carl Perfect, Mitchell Eve, Ramit, Akshay, Jooyoung, and everyone else for suggestions!