The Android Hardware-Buttons Are Broken

I’ve long said that the hardware buttons on Android phones were/are a really bad idea. Thought I’d elaborate on why, since it’s been pissing me off lately:

The back-button

Exhibit A: if I get a mention on Twitter and open up the Android Twitter app to check it out, I’m (naturally) sent directly to the tweet mentioning me. Ok, so I want to get back to the main timeline, what do I press? The answer is: you can’t. Pressing the back-button, which is the only real candidate for this action, will take you wherever you where before seeing this screen, which in this case was the home screen, exiting the app. Hmm, so how do I get to the main timeline? I have to open Twitter again, showing the same tweet I saw before and now press the back button, and it will take me to the main timeline. So pressing the exact same button on exactly the same screen will take me to two completely different places? That’s swell.

The argument here is of course that Twitter is doing it wrong, that the back button should always bring you back one step inside the app, but that this inconsistency can even present itself in the OS shows a big conceptual faux pas when it comes to the Android UI.

The problem is, that Android hasn’t decided what that it wants the back button to do. Do you want it to take you back to the previous screen, wherever that was, or take you back one step inside the app? Right now it’s a convoluted combination of the two, and most of the time, which one will occur is a guess and can’t be known before pressing the button.

The menu-button

This is perhaps a more apparently bad idea than the back button. The menu-button is pressed to get a contextual menu with options to perform certain actions on whatever screen you’re currently at. This is great because you can easily perform many actions on a screen without using up any screen real-estate for buttons, but it’s less great because you have no clue which actions you can perform before pressing the contextual button. Many apps get this and put buttons for the most prominent actions on the screen in plain view, but that also demotes the menu-button actions and makes you forget you could find more actions there, especially since very many apps don’t put anything under the contextual menu at all. On the iPhone, where contextual menus have to be opened with a button on the screen you instantly see the menu, you don’t have to check if there is one. The Android way just makes you miss a lot of stuff you can do in apps.

The sad thing is about all this is that having made the decision to use these buttons from the start, Google has locked itself in a mess of a UI-model. All Android apps would have to be redesigned should they want to change it around and fix this. In short, they’re stuck with a UI that sucks and they can’t fix it because they didn’t think it through thoroughly before the first launch.

PS. And don’t get me started on them moving these buttons around with every launched phone…

Disagree? Let me know in the comments. Agree? Then you should probably follow me on twitter.