Something as simple as buttons should be easy to figure out, right? After watching and waiting for Android to mature, we’re finally seeing the right steps taken in a very fundamental part of the phone. However, there are still a few problems to clean up.
The move to software buttons in Ice Cream Sandwich is a good move. With the new drawn-on soft keys, Google has out-Appled Apple in pushing toward a minimalistic hardware design, and I like that. But it’s more than just aesthetic minimalism, and it has altered how the user interacts with the device.
What is undoubtably an improvement on the old capacitive-key design is the switch from a 4 to 3 button layout. Instead of having back, menu, home, and search buttons, the Android team has opted to lop of the search and menu buttons and add the task switcher button. A wise move. I never understood the search button to begin with. Maybe it’s just that I always know where I’m going, or I’ve been habitually trained over time to go into the browser and then navigate to the Google homepage. Regardless of the case, I have always found the search button to be superfluous and make the capacitive row appear more crowded than it should.
Secondly, I applaud the removal of the menu button. This is actually a very significant move with respect to the basic UI. Android is maligned as a complex operating system, but the basic design of many of the Google applications in Gingerbread is quite simplistic. The problem is that Android relied on the menu button to hide many of these core options. If I navigate to my Gmail inbox and go to my emails, I see very a little: the message list, an Inbox button and account button at the top. If I want to do anything else, I need to know that refresh, compose, accounts, go to labels, search and more are all hidden behind the menu button. It seems that Android is moving toward making buttons more obvious in the UI in ICS, and its a move that seems to compliment their idea of making Android a more approachable OS.
They may want to take the button-overhaul an additional step to make it more user friendly. One problem that always bothered me is the back button’s action, more specifically how back is handled with respect to the core OS and within apps. Apparently, the home screen is where the button lives, because it keeps returning there. If I wanted to go home, I’d press that other button. You know, the home one. It would be a much better idea for it to be pinned to the main screen of the application itself. For example, if I open my Gmail app to the inbox where I last left off and I press the back button, I return to the home screen, and not the main labels section of Gmail, or even the most basic accounts section. As frustrating as this is, it would be bearable if this were at least a persistent problem across applications. Case in point: I open my browser to the last page I had up. I tap the back button, and expect to be brought back to the home screen, just as I was from Gmail. But I’m not. It navigates to the previous page, and keeps cycling back with each additional press of the back button until it eventually comes to the end of my history and finally lands back on the home screen. Incredible. If the function of the back button was more consistent and intuitive, users would benefit greatly.
With ICS, Android has taken several large leaps forward. The replacement of four hardware buttons for three soft keys is certainly a significant one, and not just from a design perspective. The biggest question will be if application developers and Google itself are able to implement virtual keys in a way that is more meaningful than the old capacitive buttons. The implementation of the keys still needs some refining, and it will be interesting to see which direction Google takes, keys or no keys, in future OS updates.