Android Q's big navigation change: Here's why it makes sense, says Google

More screen space wins out over familiar three-button navigation.

What you get in Google's Android Auto big update Google is giving Android Auto a new look and features to make it easier to control apps.

A day after releasing the final Android Q beta with yet more tweaks to the new swipe-based navigation system, Google has outlined why it thinks it's better than the traditional three-button setup that a billion users are familiar with. 

Moving around apps on Android Q will soon look a little more like iOS on iPhones that lack a home button. For the same screen-maximizing reasons, Google is ushering out its familiar three buttons for "gestural navigation". Until Android Q, the left button – usually a backward-pointing triangle – moved back to the last screen; the center meant going to the home screen; and the right surfaced opened apps. 

Like the iPhone X and newer, Android Q is adopting a single bar located in the center of the home screen that lets users swipe up to access opened apps. Android Q also offers a swipe right to go back, and swipe up from the bottom corners to invoke Assistant.

SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF)

Google's change to edge-screen swipes in Android Q might not be a problem if it weren't for the fact that many apps already rely on a left-to-right swipe to display information, such as app menus, in so-called drawers. But Google says that less than 10% of users actually swipe right to open a drawer.  

"We found that ~3-7% of users (depending on the Google app) swipe to open the App Navigation Drawer – the rest of our users push the hamburger menu to invoke the drawer," explained Android user interface product managers Allen Huang and Rohan Shah

"This drawer swipe gesture is now overloaded with back and some users will need to adapt to using the hamburger menu. This was a tough choice but given the prolific use of back we optimized for what worked best there.

"Because it's never a goal to change out behavior on users, we tried several ways to enable users to distinguish the drawer gesture from the Back gesture. However, all these paths led to users pulling in the drawer when they were trying to go Back and having less confidence that Back would work."

This week Google unveiled the sixth and final Android Q beta with its latest efforts to address this conflict with a "sensitivity preference setting for the Back gesture". That was on top of a tweak in the Android Q beta 5 release, which introduced a 'peeking' element for drawer behavior to help users distinguish between in-app actions and actions for the homescreen.    

The new navigation system has caused consternation among Android users. XDA-developers.com called it a "mess". Seemingly small user interface (UI) changes are difficult, but they become big when they affect over a billion people who rely on their Android phones to communicate and do business online. 

But according to Huang and Shah, "gestures can be a faster, more natural and ergonomic way to navigate your phone."

Swipes can also be more "intentional" than software buttons that might be pressed accidentally when picking up a phone. And third, gestures better suit bigger screens and smaller bezels.

While Apple introduced gestures in the iPhone X with little controversy, Google says the biggest problem with Android's shift away from buttons is the diversity of Android handset makers, which now exceed 20,000 models from over 1,000 OEMs. It blames fragmentation over and above gestures not working for users, the learning curve, and an app's navigation pattern.   

"But most of all, we realized that there was a larger issue of fragmentation when different Android phones had different gestures, especially for Android developers," the pair explain. 

Google says it has worked with Samsung, Xiaomi, HMD Global, OPPO, OnePlus, LG, Motorola and other vendors to standardize gestures in the future. 

Google claims its research with users found that Android Q was on par in ergonomics, faster to use, and equal when accessing recently opened apps. It also found users took on average one to three days to adapt to gestures.