Android 10

The two fatal flaws with Android 10's gestures

And what Google can do to fix 'em up fast.

Android 10 Gestures Flaws
Clker-Free-Vector-Images/JR Raphael (CC0)

I've been thinking a lot about gestures lately — not friendly gestures, mind you, or even not-so-friendly gestures of the single-fingered variety, but rather the sorts of gestures we swipe onto our screens and use to get around our phones.

Android 10, as you probably know by now, introduces a whole new system of gestures into the operating system. And, well, they're kind of a mixed bag.

Now, don't get me wrong: Android 10's gestures have absolutely gotten better since their awkward debut early on in the development process. And by and large these days, they're pretty pleasant to use (once you get used to 'em, anyway). But they still have really some vexing elements involved — ways in which using them feels clunky and completely suboptimal. And I've finally put my finger on exactly what those issues are.

The good news? They're flaws that Google could address relatively easily in a future update. The bad news? Until that happens, Android 10's gestures are gonna remain annoyingly awkward and occasionally irritating. Yes, you can perform some crafty finger-magic to work around these issues — as I suggested in my collection of Android 10 gesture tips earlier this week — but workarounds aren't long-term solutions. And the vast majority of regular phone-owners are never even gonna know such options exist.

Here, then, are the flaws Google needs to focus on and resolve in order to push Android's gestures forward and smooth out their still-slightly-rough-around-the-edges nature.

1. Consistency

The issue: The biggest lingering flaw with Android 10's gestures is both simple and supremely frustrating: When you swipe your finger on your screen, you often don't know what result you're going to get — and the action that ends up happening frequently isn't the one you were trying to achieve.

Almost all of this revolves around Android 10's new Back gesture, specifically, which trades the traditional Android Back button for a swipe inward from either the left or the right side of the screen. The problem is that that same gesture overlaps with and directly conflicts with a fair amount of existing actions within the operating system.

The most prominent among those — and one we'll address in more detail in a moment — is the opening of an app's main menu, frequently known as a navigation drawer. But that's far from the only place where this problem appears.

A few examples I've encountered numerous times myself over the past several days:

  • When swiping through images in Google Photos, you swipe in from the right side of the screen to move forward one image and from the left side of the screen to move back. But guess what happens roughly 20 percent of the time on those swipes? The software interprets your gesture as being the system-level Back command — and then, instead of taking you to the next or previous image, it dumps you out of the full-screen photo view entirely and back onto the main Photos home screen. The difference between a back action within the photo view and a Back command at the system level is literally a single millimeter on your screen, and it's impossible to predict with any consistency which result you're going to get on any given attempt.
  • When doing on-device editing in an app like Snapseed, AZ Screen Recorder, or any number of other similar utilities, you frequently move your finger along sliders (either on-screen or invisible) to adjust an image's or a video's qualities. And, yes, that horizontal sliding motion is in direct competition with the Android 10 Back gesture. Start your finger just slightly too close to the edge of your screen — even when it's well within the app's boundaries for its function — and you end up backing out of the editing screen entirely and potentially even losing your work.
  • When using an app with a list of items that can be swiped away to be archived — Gmail, Messages, Keep, and countless others — it's all too easy to try to activate the system-level Back command to exit out of the app and instead find yourself swiping away an item and archiving it inadvertently. I've accidentally archived several emails and other items in this manner, and by the time I realize what happened, it's often too late to figure out what I sent away by mistake.

The answer: Instead of relying on app developers to cook up a magic fix for avoiding these sorts of instances — something that clearly isn't an effective option, especially considering that Google's own apps are among the worst offenders — Google needs to come up with clear, consistent rules that make it impossible for apps to interfere with the Android 10 Back gesture. And then, it needs to actually enforce them.

That means the way we're accustomed to interacting with many of these apps will have to change. Horizontal swiping gestures will have to become much more limited in scope than they are right now — perhaps with actions emanating from the center of the screen instead of the edge — or they'll have to be phased out entirely in favor of some other less problematic pattern. Either arrangement is better than having two gestures that conflict with each other and result in unpredictability.

And, crucially, it's up to Google to make this a firm, non-negotiable requirement that app developers have to follow if they want their apps to be compatible with Android 10 phones. That's the only way consistency will happen — and the only way that using Android 10 gestures will become a reliably good experience.

That leads us right into our second fatal flaw...

2. Commitment

The issue: As it stands now, Google's taking a rather wishy-washy, weak-seeming stance on committing to its new gesture setup. Sure, the new Android 10 Back gesture involves a swipe in from the side of the screen — but what's that you say? Your app has a menu drawer that also involves a swipe in from that very same area? Well, gosh, all right, then. Let's find a way to make everyone happy.

Here's a news flash: Trying to please everyone tends to result in a less-than-ideal experience for everyone — and in the case of Android 10's Back gesture, that's absolutely what we're seeing play out. The software's method of having two slightly different variations on the same gesture for opening an app's menu drawer and activating the system-level Back command is clunky and impossible to master. And the inclusion of a buried "Back Sensitivity" setting to (theoretically) allow the user to adjust how often one action or the other occurs is just plain silly.

The answer: Instead of trying to make everyone happy — and creating an awkward compromise on every side of the situation — Google needs to commit wholeheartedly to its new gesture system and adjust the rest of the environment accordingly. In other words, don't awkwardly try to cram in support for two overlapping and conflicting patterns; just change the damn behavior and then stick with the decision.

That ultimately means getting rid of the swipe-in pattern for app navigation drawers, getting rid of the clunky two-in-one setup and the accompanying setting to support that duality, and reserving the swipe-in-from-the-side action exclusively for the system-level Back function. Force app developers and phone-owners to accept the idea that app drawers are opened by tapping the menu icon instead of sliding inward. Make a decision, take a stance, and treat it as a true platform-wide standard.

Changing basic operating system patterns certainly isn't easy, but approaching such a shift with consistency and commitment is the only way to make it effective — and that, my fellow screen-swipers, is what we need to see happen if Android 10's gestures are gonna get any better.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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