Things wrong with the Google Android UI

It has been my experience that most software developers, and many product managers for that matter, have absolutely no sense of UI design. After playing a little bit with the Google Android Dev phone, the following things immediately jump out at me that are just wrong about the gPhone.

(1) How many different ways do you need to get your e-mail?

On the home screen you have the “Browser” icon which takes you to the mobile version of Google, where at the top there is an e-mail tab. To your typical user, this is the way you get your e-mail. Buried under the tab which reveals all the applications beyond the basic 4, you also find a Gmail program which can be used to get your Google e-mail, and an Email application which can be configured to get your Google e-mail via IMAP.

Do you need three separate and equivalent (in terms of number of taps) ways to get your e-mail?

Yes, the first two methods only get your Gmail; the last tool can be configured to get other e-mail. But honestly, would it hurt to have a unified e-mail mechanism?

(2) Incoming messages are not obvious.

When you get an e-mail, the upper left status bar shows a small icon representing the fact that you have a new message. It’s unclear what that icon represents: how am I supposed to know a little ‘@’ sign means I have new mail?

What’s odd about the incoming message status bar is that behind that status bar, if you touch the top bar and slide down to the bottom of the phone, is hidden a notification system which tells you of all of your incoming notifications. But there is nothing on the bar indicating that it can be slid down like this!

Meanwhile the front of the phone has a ton of screen real estate being devoted to–displaying a blue ocean scene.

(3) There is no clear indication in the application launcher icons (hidden by the tab at the bottom of the display) as to which applications have received a notification.

On the iPhone, a small badge is used in order to determine if there are messages associated with an application; thus, if you have waiting SMS messages, the SMS icon has a number indicating the number of messages. Similarly for e-mail.

The Google phone, however, does not provide any such indicator: if you get a message you can launch the application that handles that message by clicking the notification line in the notification window (if you’re smart enough to divine the fact that a notification window can be found there), but otherwise, all you know is the phone rang, a little mail icon (for SMS) or @ sign (for e-mail) is sitting in the upper corner, and God knows which application you should open to handle the messages.

(4) There is no note taking system for the Google phone.

Yeah, people bitched when there was no to-do list manager on the iPhone, and that makes sense to me: you have a to-do list in a synchronized Calendar, so why can’t I get that to-do list on my phone? But the Google phone doesn’t even have a notepad. A big, beautiful keyboard and no way to take notes?

Yes, you can download third-party notepads to the Google phone, just as you can download third-party to-do programs on the iPhone. But seriously…

(5) Likewise, as a video player, you can play–YouTube videos.

Thanks. But I’d like to watch the latest episode of Battlestar Galactica.

(6) When the phone turned on from sleep, the display shows status, the network, the time (as a digital display) and a message to press the menu key to unlock the phone. Once the phone is turned on, you go to a primary screen with four icons–dial, contacts, browser and maps–and a beautifully rendered analog clock.

But here’s the thing. Say I’m pulling the device out of my pocket and checking the time. I’ll press a button, see the digital time, then let the display go to sleep again.

If I bother to unlock the phone, I’m going to use an application–either I’m going to make a phone call or I’m going to run a Tetris clone. So why force me to go through three taps–the third to expand the launcher–in order to play a game?

I suggest the analog clock in the middle of the display is completely useless: the time is also displayed in the upper left corner–and the only reason why I can see for having a beautifully rendered analog clock and a digital clock on the same screen is because Google thinks I’m 5 years old and still learning what the big hand means and what the little hand means.

Apple solves this problem by having a row of icons clearly delineated at the bottom of the screen that are fixed from screen to screen: the ‘Phone’ (which includes the contacts list), ‘Mail’ (and not three separate mail programs), ‘Safari’ (for browsing) and ‘iPod’ (for playing music and videos). But rather than wasting the rest of the real estate on the top of the display with a useless clock and a pretty seascape, the iPhone displays a 4×4 grid of other applications you may wish to run.

Yes, I know these are minor nit-picky minor things–perhaps nearly not worth even noting. But that’s the whole point of user interface design: there needs to be a coherent whole, some unified thought, a way to clearly indicate to the user using a consistent symbolic visual language what to do. When I see an icon in a rectangle I know if I touch it something represented by that icon will happen.

But Google has violated a number of these things: how am I supposed to know that by sliding the top down I’ll get the notification manager? And why–outside the possibility of separate development teams competing on providing e-mail and not talking to each other–is there three ways to get my e-mail?

And that’s the point: each of these tiny little pointless and nearly irrelevant little nit-picky things are exactly those things that turn a good user experience into a insanely great user experience.

And the Google phone: it’s good. Better than Windows Mobile.

But it’s not insanely great.

2 thoughts on “Things wrong with the Google Android UI

  1. I like the attitude and I agree about the attention to details as important for a great user experience… but with all user interfaces there are a few “idoms” that you have to learn.
    The status bar on Android is one of these. It may be a different idiom than the one you are used to or you favor, but it is nevertheless an idiom, and consistently applied across all Android applications.
    Many people (including myself), when they see an icon appear in the status bar, will try to touch it or swipe it, to get more information on what it means. I did not read any manual but I was able to (“accidentally” the first time) unfold the status list display by just being curious about the new icon that had appeared in the status bar. So I would argue that it’s a great piece of UI, it builds on people’s natural reactions when faced with a new icon to unfold more details, and it behaves consistently across the OS.
    The alternate way of doing things that you describe for the iPhone is not convincingly better, for example I might not be pleased to scroll through 5 pages of application icons to “notice” that the icon of one of them among 200 others has slightly changed.
    Just a different way of doing things… For people used to WinMo or iPhone, maybe there is just one single way of doing things, but I welcome the fresh and different way… to me consistency and not deceiving the user, (i.e. making things as predictable and obvious as possible) is key.
    In spite of your example, I think the Android scores quite high on that scale.
    Oh, and you might have noticed by now, the giant clock that you complain about is just a widget, something that comes pre-configured. When you get your phone and there are only a few applications on it, I find it kind of good to have “an example” of such a widget occupying all that empty space, rather than just the wallpaper.
    If you don’t like the widget, and I don’t either, I agree with you that it is redundant, then tap and hold it, wait until it wiggles, and drop it into the trashcan. There you go, more space. Again these are things that take a few days to discover, but once you have learned them, they “agree” with the things you already know and and consistently apply throughout the OS.
    I have also been using an iPhone and I found that a lot of the UI is actually left up to each application and you get a lot of diversity at the expense of consistency.
    The Android seems to be a lot more predictable while still managing to be different and very usable.
    I agree about your point on the lack of note taking tool, it’s quite bad.
    About the email thing, I agree with your points, but I don’t think it is a UI or even an Android OS problem… it sounds more to me like a Google problem, with their agenda to push (literally) their own flavor of email, because, you know, they’re Google and they could not possibly be integrated like the other common mail providers into using a standard mail protocol, and share the same mail application, that would be so uncool! So the problem here is the whole concept of “Gmail”, Google branded mail, not the UI. I bet the same thing will happen if they one day offer “documents”, there will be the Google application for Google docs (TM) and then good luck to the rest of the people who want to use uncool non-Google documents! Hey, the phone should come with a pair of Google underwear in the box for us to wear!


  2. The alternate way of doing things that you describe for the iPhone is not convincingly better, for example I might not be pleased to scroll through 5 pages of application icons to “notice” that the icon of one of them among 200 others has slightly changed.

    Sure, I agree. And that goes to a functional shortcoming of the iPhone, which is that applications do not get notifications. While an application can change its badge count (by calling [UIApplication setApplicationIconBadgeNumber]), without an external notification it’s meaningless. Apple has promised a notification API, but so far–nothing, nada.

    However, for those applications which receive notifications, Apple solves the notification in an very useful way: when the phone is asleep, the first time you wake up the phone, a notification window appears in the middle of the (still locked) phone giving the status of the last received notifications. (So you’ll see that you have a phone call, voice mail and an SMS message. And if you only have a message or two, it’ll display the message in that window.) If the screen is active, a small alert pops up with the notification.

    Once Apple has support for notifications they’ll have to solve the whole “how do we display notifications for a dozen applications” problem, and it’ll be interesting to see how they do that. But for now–there is no “five pages to swipe through to find the application” problem because only five applications get notifications.

    The thing about Google’s solution to notification is that it is elegant–but invisible. Even a simple graphic (like a down arrow or dot) would help: the problem is that a typical user doesn’t know they can swipe there.

    Speaking of Apple iPhone UI shortcomings, I have to admit that I like Google’s solution to deleting an icon from the front page over Apple’s. Apple violates it’s own rule of thumb that you should not have a touch area smaller than 44×44 pixels with its “delete this application” badge when modifying current applications. Google solves this by creating a drag target that is a trash can: it’s a far easier gesture to complete.

    Oh, and you might have noticed by now, the giant clock that you complain about is just a widget, something that comes pre-configured. When you get your phone and there are only a few applications on it, I find it kind of good to have “an example” of such a widget occupying all that empty space, rather than just the wallpaper.

    I’ve noticed that–and this goes to another problem with Google, in that it is not obvious at all that this is a widget or that I can modify it.

    And this goes to another user interface design issue which I have with most software developers: if you do not make it ‘obvious’ that something can be done (such as touch-hold to edit front page widgets), then 90% of your users will never discover the functionality. As a consequence 90% of your users will have the standard clock with a dialer, browser, contacts and maps row–and a corollary to this is that most users will access their Gmail by touching ‘Browser” and then selecting the “GMail” web app. A user may accidently discover you can side swipe left or right when they accidently clear that front screen or get the Google search bar to show up–but that’ll probably be the extent of it, and the experience (of accidently wiping out their screen) won’t be an “a-ha!” puzzle most programmers love, but a frustrating experience that will lower people’s expectations of the phone a little.

    As an organizational principle I happen to love the idea of an editable front screen. Of the 50-odd applications I have on my iPhone, I only really regularly use about a dozen. But because it’s unclear how one should move these things around, it can be a frustrating experience to users to discover how these things work.

    This goes to a fundamental problem with most user interfaces–and I don’t just mean Google’s phone; it also applies to BMW’s iDrive as well. We developers love puzzles. It’s what makes us developers. We love to discover how things work, to see if our mental models as to how something should work is accurate. So when we accidently swipe a page and it slides away and is replaced with something that is blank, the first thing that comes into our minds is “huh; a blank slate. There must be an ‘add’ button around here somewhere.” And that leads us to discover that we can not only just add new buttons but also move things around as well.

    Little inconsistencies (such as an inconsistent UI visual language on the BMW iDrive) becomes a puzzle and a new and interesting thing to learn. Hidden widgets becomes something fun to discover. And we love to apply our previous mental models to a new problem: if I can add something, my mental model says I can also modify that thing and delete that thing–and perhaps even undo my actions.

    Most end-users, however, are not developers. The desire and drive and joy in solving puzzles is not a universal human trait, no more than the simple joy of spending an hour at a gym pushing oneself on the weight machine to see what one can do, or the simple joy of putting oneself against nature and seeing if one can feed oneself by shooting an animal in the wild are universal traits. (I hate the gym.) So when a device behaves in an unexpected and previously unobserved way without some little visual indication that a new behavior may occur, most people don’t go “oh, goodie! A new puzzle! I wonder what it does?”

    Instead, they get frustrated that their device malfunctioned in some way–and they’ll start jabbing at things without rhyme or reason until it “works” again.

    Pick a consistent visual language, and stick to it. Don’t provide puzzles or hidden surprises. Give a clear visual indication that something does something–even Windows Mobile gives a visual feedback (in the bottom 22 pixels of the display) that the smart buttons and the menu button currently does something. And while Geeks may be disappointed because it’s “trivially obvious” how to do something, most end-users will be happy their devices “just work” without “unexpected (and highly annoying) surprises.”


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