Android is slowly sliding back into old bad habits

Android has a lot of good things going for it, but not all of Google's recent progress has been positive.

Android Old Habits
Uncalno Tekno/Flickr

Those of us who watch Android closely know that Google has a history of flipping and flopping -- of firmly getting behind one idea or way of doing things, then casually changing its mind and doing a complete 180 a while later.

Sometimes, these U-turns work out well in the end. Other times, they're baffling and frustrating for us as users. And other times yet, they're so subtle and evolutionary -- more of broad philosophical shifts than surface-level alterations -- that you almost don't even notice them until you really stop and think.

This latest instance falls into that final category. I'm talking about the apparent move back toward out-of-sight, difficult-to-discover actions in the operating system -- something Google explicitly made an effort to avoid starting with 2011's Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich release.

With this year's Android 7.0 Nougat software, the regression has become enough of a trend to make me worry.

Out of sight, out of mind

First, a quick step back in time for perspective: Much of Google's focus with Android 4.0 was on making the operating system more polished, intuitive, and user-friendly. (Astute observers may remember that Ice Cream Sandwich was the first release fully guided by then-new-Android-design-chief Matias Duarte, who joined Google midway through Honeycomb's development and has since moved onto a broader role overseeing Material Design across all of Google's products.) A large part of that effort involved taking the platform's many hidden elements and bringing them out into the open. That way, they'd be more visible and thus more likely to be discovered and used.

It was that goal that led to the elimination of Android's system-level Menu key, which had caused commands to be tucked away off the screen -- with no indication of their presence. Having elements of the interface hidden, Google realized, did not make for an ideal user experience; without any visual cues, such elements were difficult for people to discover and unnatural for them to use.

I don't know if something changed or if that lesson was simply deprioritized over time, but Android has been inching increasingly back into the realm of buried commands as of late. The slideback actually started with 2013's Android 4.4 KitKat release -- albeit in a relatively small way: With Android 4.0, as you may recall, Google moved the option to add home screen widgets from a hidden long-press menu into the main app drawer, where it'd be plainly in sight and accessible. The idea was to create a single place for finding everything that could be added onto your home screen. From a discoverability and usability perspective, it seemed to make an awful lot of sense.

But then, without explanation, KitKat did an about-face: The release quietly pulled widgets out of the app drawer and put them back into their former long-press-menu hiding spot. Out of sight once again -- and that was just the start.

2012's Android 4.1 release introduced Google Now, which made the hidden long-press command a core part of Android's user interface. Last year's Android 6.0 Marshmallow software took things a step further and brought the also-cue-lacking Now On Tap into the equation. (Even constantly forget it's there, and I pay attention to this stuff for a living.)

And with this year's Android 7.0 Nougat update, a whole host of similarly concealed commands has been added into the mix -- things like long-pressing the Overview key (or, more inconspicuous yet, tapping it and then long-pressing an app's card from there) to initiate split-screen mode; long-pressing notifications to customize their behavior; and long-pressing icons in the Share list to change the order in which they appear.

(Update: And don't even get me started on the App Shortcuts feature introduced in Android 7.1...)

All of these commands are significant additions to the operating system and have the potential to be quite useful -- and all of them are equally out of sight and difficult to discover. I was reminded of this when I asked my wife, who has a reasonably good grasp on technology but is much more of a "normal user" than an enthusiast, what she thought about the new Nougat software that arrived on her Nexus 5X earlier this week.

Her answer? "It's fine, I guess. I haven't really noticed anything different. I know there's that split-screen thing you showed me, but I haven't figured out how to do it yet."

And remember: She's someone who has the advantage of at least hearing about these things (via my incessant blabbing) and knowing that they're there. Most typical users are going into this completely blind. And that's precisely the type of situation where a lack of intuitiveness really becomes an issue.

An important nit to pick

Don't get me wrong: At this point, Android is pretty, polished, and packed with power. But increasingly, a fair portion of that power is out of sight and thus out of mind to users -- particularly the more common casual users who don't carefully follow the platform's development. And that's a shame, because there's a lot of good stuff here that regular people aren't even aware exists.

Part of it may just be that as the platform expands, the software inevitably grows more dense with features and options -- and Google's running out of obvious places to squeeze all of that within the current Android framework. (There are only so many places for top-level buttons and commands, after all.) Maybe the answer, then, is something that requires more sweeping changes to the operating system's interface -- something that allows these features to be incorporated in an intuitive and visible way rather than being crammed awkwardly into a corner.

One way or another, I hope Google regains its focus on maintaining a simple and visual-guided UI for Android before the complexity seeps in much further. It took the company years to transform Android from a power-user-centric mishmosh of possibilities into an intuitive and inviting (though no less powerful) platform for the masses. If these current trends continue, it'll take far less time for all of that progress to be undone.

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