Android's sharing system is morphing into an unpredictable mess

One of Android's most powerful elements is losing its edge as poor design practices spread surprisingly far.

Android Sharing
Geralt, modified by IDG Comm

When it comes to technology, it's often the smallest details that make the biggest impact.

Sure, splashy elements like Android's split-screen mode and notification channels made for great new-release bullet points when they came along (in Android 7.0, Nougat and Android 8.0, Oreo, respectively) — but let's be honest: How often does either actually affect your day-to-day life? If you're like the vast majority of Android phone-owners, the answer is probably "pretty darn rarely."

But then there's something like Android's system-wide sharing feature — a long-standing element of the operating system that's all too easy to take for granted. It's the thing that lets you select text in an email or a web page and then beam it directly into a note, text message, or document. It's what lets you open an image in your phone's camera app and then send it directly into an editing utility like Snapseed or a storage service like Dropbox. It's what lets you save a page from your phone's browser to a place like Pocket, Inbox, or Evernote with a couple quick taps.

For years, it was Android's quiet killer feature — a subtle but significant point of differentiation, especially since Apple didn't add something similar into iOS until 2014. These days, such a feature may seem like table stakes, but that doesn't make it any less important to the overall user experience.

Why am I rambling on about all of this, you may be wondering? Good question, Guinevere. Let me tell you: It's because Android's share interface has slowly but surely devolved from a standout element of the operating system into an inconsistent and confusing mess. And it's only getting worse.

Let's get into it, shall we?

The Android sharing devolution

The best way to explain what's happening is to start with something that seems almost painfully obvious: When you hit the share button in an app — any app, anywhere on your phone — you should know what you're about to get. You should know what options are gonna pop up, how they're gonna look, and how you can find the item you need.

And that, my dear sweet plum, is the problem with Android's sharing system in a nutshell: Increasingly, when you hit the share button in an app, you get something that isn't the standard Android share interface. It's a custom interface, created by the app's developer, and it looks different and perhaps even works somewhat differently than the standard system version — or any other version you've seen anywhere else — and usually for no apparent reason.

Take, for instance, the share interface from the popular article-saving app Pocket:

Android Sharing: Pocket JR

Or the share interfaces from Firefox and Feedly:

Android Sharing: Firefox, Feedly JR

They're all just slightly different. So what, you might say? Well, Mr. Weathersby, it certainly is a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things. But what we have to remember is that interface consistency across a platform — particularly when it comes to a core, system-level function — is what makes for a good user experience. It's what makes a platform feel cohesive and connected. It's what allows you to perform an action quickly and easily, without having to think about what you're doing or how you're going to do it.

Ultimately, it's what makes for a polished, user-friendly, and complete-feeling experience — something Android sorely lacked in its early years and has since made great strides in achieving. Up until recently, anyway.

The problem with interface inconsistency

I'm reminded of this subject whenever I bring up one of my favorite handy but hidden Android features: the ability to customize the system share menu and pin your most-used destinations to the top of the list. The option was quietly introduced with Nougat in 2016 and has been one of those "small but significant" features, in terms of real-world impact, ever since.

Every time I talk about it, though, someone inevitably says to me: "Wait, you giddy-faced gazelle! I'm trying to check this out, and it just isn't working!" After a bit of back and forth, I realize they're trying to use the feature in an app that doesn't embrace the standard Android share interface — and thus doesn't have this standard system-level option available. More often than not, the app in question is Google Photos.

And that's what makes the whole thing particularly problematic: Google itself is becoming one of the worst offenders at flouting Android's share interface standard. With Photos, at least, the custom share interface is present because Photos has its own set of unique share-related options for creating links and shared galleries and for sharing directly to other users within the Photos service. We can quibble over whether there might be a better way to offer those options without completely disregarding the system standard, but there's at least a valid reason involved.

What about with Maps, though — an app that also ignores the Android standard and uses its own slightly different share interface? What about with the new YouTube Music app, whose custom share interface adds nothing of value and serves only to create inconsistency and confusion?

Android Sharing: Google Maps, YouTube Music JR

Or what about with the new Google News app, which forces all the main share options down into an annoyingly awkward horizontally-scrolling line — thus requiring a totally bizarre and unexpected type of action — without adding anything of significance into the equation?

Android Sharing: Google News JR

It seems like more and more, Google is establishing a new standard — one in which disregarding the system standard for no apparent reason is the norm. Google's own apps should be shining examples of interface design. And this is the model they're setting.

Back in 2014, I wrote a column called "Android design fails: 12 stupid sins that need to stop." With a couple of exceptions, most of the items I mentioned in that story have become far less prevalent in recent years, as proper design has come into focus and become more of a priority across all of Android.

But then there's item #8 — yup, you guessed it: "Custom share dialogs." Back in 2014, it was mostly random third-party developers that were ignoring Android's standard and creating their own subpar implementations. Now, it's Google itself propagating the practice and actively working against its users' best interests.

In 2014, I summed it up thusly:

Some people will read this and say, "Sure, whatever — normal users won't notice that kind of stuff, anyway." And they're right: Most typical users don't consciously think about UI design, nor should they. But they do notice when certain apps are more pleasant to use than others.

Good UI design shouldn't be something you actively think about; it should be something that just makes things easy and enjoyable to use. As the often quoted maxim puts it, "Good user interface design facilitates finishing the task at hand without drawing unnecessary attention to itself."

Those words are no less relevant or important today. So come on, Google: It's not too late to turn this ship around. You can set a standard of excellence not only for your users but also for the countless third-party developers who look to what you're doing as an example.

Design standards exist for a reason. You, Google — of all entities — should know that. You're the one who created the very parameters you're now ignoring.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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