Android Design Problem Areas

android.gifGoogle have just published their Android Design site that attempts to define a consistent style across future Android apps. It’s a very comprehensive site that covers style (e.g. themes, touch, typography), UI patterns (e.g. gestures, navigation, action bar, notifications) and building blocks (e.g. tabs, lists, scrolling, views). The only strange thing is about the site is that Google have chosen to use the (Android) font "14px/20px Roboto, sans-serif" that renders poorly for me in Chrome on Windows leading to font artefacts…


… and ironically tends to ruin the style of the site itself.

The announcement of this site is timely for me as I happen to be in the middle of designing a future Android tablet app. Very recently I have been analysing the top tablet apps to try to work out patterns for the ‘best’ look and feel. While most of the Android Design recommendations make a lot of sense, there are a few areas I think are problematic.

The first problem is having both ‘Up’ and ‘Back’. Having read the guidelines I can see that ‘Back’ can do more in that it can take you out of the app and into the previous app. However, there are too many cases where ‘Up’ and ‘Back’ will do the same thing. As it’s down to the developer to define the behaviour, I can see this is going to lead to lots of unpredictability for the end user. I can already see this with apps I use on the tablet as it’s often a gamble (and more importantly needs extra thought) whether to press Up or Back.

The second problem is related to long presses. In just about every existing Android app these are used to invoke a context menu immediately above the item pressed. Google have introduced a contextual action bar. This means that rather than getting a menu popup the action bar at the top changes when you long press. The actions you can take are now given by those on the action bar. The first problem is one of inconsistency. All existing apps currently do it different and the eye won’t know where to go. The second is one of reach. It’s too far to have to go to the action bar to do things. This leads us to the possible third problem.

Android’s action bar might be poorly placed. Frequently used things should usually be placed near the bottom of the screen. Lots of studies have been done on this, most notable, those by Microsoft that caused the Windows Mobile menu bar to be moved from the top to the bottom of the screen during the OS transition from Palm-sized PC to Pocket PC.

There’s also an article by Leisa Reichelt, a UI consultant, where she talks about activity zones and reach. She even goes so far as to recommend not using the action bar. This is interesting for me because it correlates with one of the better apps I have been studying on the tablet. If you look at Evernote, one of the best apps, there is no action bar. If you want to manipulate Evernote notebooks you long click to get a context menu. If you want to add a new notebook you press the plus icon that’s right alongside the notebook list – not something miles away as say the top right hand side of the screen. Each pane has it’s own icons closeby and it’s very easy to use.

As for my current app, it’s still early days so I’ll probably change the style to match the guidelines and use a contextual action bar. As with coding, it’s often best and long term least effort to submit to convention rather that use your own preferred convention that others might not agree with or understand – even if you believe your convention is better.

While it’s great that Android now has a style I believe this has come too late. Android has always been about functionalty before style and this has resulted in over 400,000 apps that now don’t conform to the style. This means that there will never be a level of consistency across all apps in the same way we have on iOS.  Also, the combination of Android Design being recommendations rather than app store reviewed requirements means that some developers are bound to go off on their own because they think they know better.