The case for a single, unified gesture navigation system for smartphones

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
The case for a single, unified gesture navigation system for smartphones
Gesture navigation is the way of the future: it's convenient when done right, it frees up screen space that buttons would otherwise occupy, and it can make a touchscreen experience much more fluid and enjoyable, but in the present gesture implementations feel... a bit broken.

From my point of view as someone who reviews all sorts of phones and switches between devices quite often, I can easily see how various approaches to gesture navigation differ. And I have been thinking about how I am yet to see a perfect implementation of a gesture navigation interface, which is quite sad. So... let me first walk you through the way different companies do gestures, with all the pros and cons of each approach, and then I will try to convince you that a universally agreed gesture interface would be the best thing that can happen to the industry and for the users.

Palm

Truly ahead of its time


Gesture navigation on a smartphone first appeared many years ago with the Palm Pre in 2009. The phone launched with webOS, a completely new take on a mobile operating system, and other Palm phones later on also ran on it, but for one reason or another those devices never took off and all the great ideas from back then disappeared for a good 9 years or so. We will not go back in time that far, but let's just say that Palm and webOS truly were ahead of their time with gestures, and we ought to keep that in mind. 

Apple

In modern days, Apple led the way with gestures on the iPhone X, but there are flaws

A full 9 years after the original Pre, gestures returned with a bang. Apple was the first modern smartphone maker to reinvent gestures with the iPhone X and all the rest took notice. The gesture navigation that you can now use on the iPhone X, XS, XS Max and XR stands out with its speed, fluidity and refinement that others cannot quite match yet. It's impressive to see how everything runs in buttery smooth 60fps, how you can interrupt a gesture half-way and how everything responds so quickly. However, gestures on the iPhone are not perfect in my opinion and I found these important flaws: first, the back gesture is compromised.

I like that you swipe from the side to go back, and you don't have to stretch your phone to swipe from the bottom like on many other devices, but for some reason the back gesture will work only in certain apps and not in others! For example, inside the App Store you cannot use the back gesture, but instead you have to tap on buttons to close an article and effectively go back a step. As a right-handed person, I also find it hard to reach all the way to the left side of the phone to swipe back and I really think you should be able to use a swipe from either side to go back. And do we really need to stretch all the way to the right ear on the bigger iPhones in order to see Control Center?

  • Back gesture does not work in many places and instead you need to use a button
  • Back gesture only works with a swipe from the left, but not the right

Google

Google's Anrdoid 9 Pie gestures are half-baked


It took Google almost a year to match Apple and it was finally ready with its own take on gesture navigation in the Android 9 Pie release in the fall of 2018. And it was and still is... a complete disaster! Google's gesture implementation is not really a true gesture navigation at all. It's a weird mix: you have a gesture to go to the home screen, but you have no gesture to go back a step, and you still have that button. So rather than freeing up space on the screen from navigational buttons, you still have buttons and gestures on top of that! The problem with this is that once you start swiping from navigation, when you have to tap, it feels like something breaks the fluidity of the interface. And that's exactly what's happening with Google's implementation. It's chaotic, it's a mess, and it's no wonder that other Android phone makers are doing something completely different rather than adopting Google's gesture interface.

  • No gesture to go back
  • Not a true gesture navigation, a chaotic mix between buttons and gestures
  • Accessing the app drawer is hard with a double swipe
  • Sides of the phone not utilized for gestures

Samsung

Samsung was late to the party and its gestures are too cramped and uncomfortable


Samsung is only now starting to adopt a gesture interface, almost a year and a half after Apple, so it should have had the time to perfect it, right? Well, not really. Samsung's gesture navigation consists of three gestures and all of them involve a swipe from the bottom, while the side of the phone is not used for gestures at all. The problem with this is that, first, the space at the bottom of the phone for swiping feels cramped, and second, that it's physically hard to stretch your finger to swipe from the bottom and it breaks the fluidity that is one of the fundamental benefit of gestures. My wish is that Samsung used the sides of the phone for gestures, rather than ignore that part of the phone entirely.

  • All gestures happen from the bottom, side of the phone is not utilized for gestures
  • Lack of animations make the experience look a bit spartan

LG

Still no gestures!

LG still does not have a gesture interface!

That's how late it is to the game. Hopefully, the company will introduce it with its upcoming LG G8 ThinQ flagship that we expect to see in less than a month!

Huawei

A few great ideas, but imperfect execution


Huawei has been one of the first Android phone makers to adopt a gesture navigation interface and one that is among our favorites. My favorite part of Huawei's gestures is that you can swipe from both sides of the phone to go back a step and this works in all apps, universally! This is great! Other gestures on Huawei phones are also quite logical: swipe up from the bottom to go to the home screen, and swipe up and pause to see recent apps in a card view. My issue with Huawei's gestures is the jittery animations. You notice this the more you use these phones, and while it's not a dealbreaker, it's definitely an annoying "feature".

  • Jittery animations and lack of fluidity

OnePlus

OnePlus forgets to utilize the sides of its phones for gestures


OnePlus has also been among the first to implement gestures on Android and its implementation is probably the one that performs fastest, with smooth 60fps animations. However, the back gesture here is a swipe from the bottom edge of the phone. On a phone as big as the OnePlus 6 or 6T, this is a stretch, especially when you need to swipe between apps more often and your fingers physically tire. So once again, for some reason, OnePlus has completely eliminated the use of the sides of the phone for its gesture interface, something that I find perplexing and odd.

  • All gestures happen from the bottom of the phone, which is a stretch
  • Sides of the phone are not utilized at all for gestures

The Dream Gesture Navigation Method!

I dream of a unified gesture system that will work reliably across all phones, the USB-C of navigation if you will


The more I use different phones, the more I am convinced that we need a great, non-compromised, unified gesture navigation system. One that is both convenient and one that works everywhere, one with smooth performance and refined animations. And I know it's probably not going to happen, but I really wish smartphone manufacturers got together to figure this one out. Having a great navigation system lies at the very fundamental level of a good smartphone experience. A unified gesture system is the USB-C of mobile software, something that seemed impossible, but something that I believe should unite all phone makers rather than divide them.


For me, a perfect navigation system would be a mix between the fluidity and speed of Apple's gesture navigation ideas, coupled with the universal nature of the back gesture on Android that works everywhere and every time, coupled with a back gesture that is a swipe from either side of the phone, so you don't need to stretch your hand unnaturally every time you go back a step. Something simple like this across all phones would be a game-changer and would make phones so much more enjoyable to use. And then, you can always have other alternatives on top of that foundation, but it is the foundation that is missing right now and the result is one big mess.

Are you with me on this?

Do you think that we should have a unified gesture navigation that will work well across all phones? And what would such a system look to you?

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41 Comments

1. blingblingthing

Posts: 974; Member since: Oct 23, 2012

Apple was the first modern smartphone maker to adopt gestures with the iPhone X and all the rest took notice. Oh, so blackberry didn't happen before Apple? Nothing wrong if you prefer Apple, but let's please not forget that as usual, they copied also.

2. Victor.H

Posts: 1076; Member since: May 27, 2011

And Palm happened even earlier than that! Of course! But none of them had the influence that Apple had with its gesture navigation. Only when Apple started using gesture navigation, the Android manufacturers started implementing gestures in their own system. But that's not the point. The point is that both Apple's implementation feels broken, just in a different way than on Android, and I very much want to see a good navigation system across all phones rather than some meaningless fan wars over which one is the best.

3. blingblingthing

Posts: 974; Member since: Oct 23, 2012

"Only when Apple started using gesture navigation, the Android manufacturers started implementing gestures in their own system." How about you say, Only when Palm started using gesture navigation, the Apple manufacturer started implementing gestures in their own system. Again, the audience can only take you seriously if you stick to reporting facts. This pro-apple spin isn't needed.

21. Atechguy0

Posts: 918; Member since: Aug 03, 2018

Victor don't delete my posts. Android has a back button. Just because you are not use to it, doesn't mean it's a disaster Victor. You curse Apple for inconsistent back gesture. Yet at least Android is consistent for its back button. Who cares if it doesn't have a back gesture. It's something you get use to, especially if you use it consistently. Clearly you are not using Android consistently, and it shows in this article you wrote Victor. The thing to take away from this, is if you are using both platforms, but prefer one platform over the other, then you will forget to change how you operate when switching between platforms. What you want is a consistent interface between iOS and Android. Maybe someone will make an iOS gesture interface for Android. Remember it's the platform that can allow things like that to happen. iOS is our way or take the Highway.

37. andrewc31394

Posts: 297; Member since: Jun 23, 2012

As someone who uses a Pixel 3 and an iPhone, Google's gesture implementation sucks. period. And I've been a bit of an Android fanboy most of my life

5. Heisenberg

Posts: 377; Member since: Feb 11, 2015

You love writing gibberish to backup already written gibberish. The point is, who started the modern era of gestures? It's simply blackberry, whether OEMs followed Apple or not isn't the point. Quit spreading false news, this isnt different from those spread on Facebook and WhatsApp. Cheers mate

15. Supah

Posts: 692; Member since: Mar 08, 2017

Stop drinking the Apple Kool-Aid Victor. You, Adrian D, Cosmin V & DEFINITELY Ray S make this site look real bad. You and the rest of 'wannabe iWriters' I mentioned above write these kind of iBS articles(including ALL iPhone reviews) all the time, letting your readers know that the iBias is real but still have the audacity to get mad at your readers for saying 'iPA'. You guys even go beyond that by deleting & moderating comments that doesn't favor your iMighty aka Apple. Are we all in North Korea or something?

19. Juarizs

Posts: 45; Member since: Jan 22, 2019

Eat a snickers man..

8. bucknassty

Posts: 1350; Member since: Mar 24, 2017

didn't Palm pioneer this gesture system.... used it on a pre... and on my HP touchpad... hmmm

9. blingblingthing

Posts: 974; Member since: Oct 23, 2012

They didn't if you're pro-apple. What I hate is the fact that some Apple fan will soon be making similar false statements in a phone discussion with me and be sure he knows what he's saying.

16. Supah

Posts: 692; Member since: Mar 08, 2017

Leo_MC & midan's very good at that. They'd even lie, too.

28. wickedwilly

Posts: 723; Member since: Sep 19, 2018

A lot!

4. pokharkarsaga

Posts: 553; Member since: Feb 23, 2012

Google has the most ugly gesture of them all . Xioami has the best.

7. blingblingthing

Posts: 974; Member since: Oct 23, 2012

I sort of love the Google one also.

6. midan

Posts: 2984; Member since: Oct 09, 2017

"I really think you should be able to use a swipe from either side to go back" Swipe from right already have function, you go forward.

10. darkkjedii

Posts: 31289; Member since: Feb 05, 2011

Gestures are the future. I never used stock android gestures, but the Note 9 nails them. The Max and Note 9 are neck and neck, with gestures. I love the Note 9's different areas, for different gesture actions though at the bottom.

11. kiko007

Posts: 7500; Member since: Feb 17, 2016

Gesture navigation has probably become the best way to offset the advent of massive phones. I don’t think I could handle an Xs Max (Still a stupid name) without them. On the Android side of things, Xiaomi seems to do gestures best with 1+ being a close second. Google’s are just... awful. Both visually and functionally compared to the competition, stock Android is behind in terms of fluidity. Kind of ironic too, considering Android has fat more ties to Palm OS than any other operating system.

27. wickedwilly

Posts: 723; Member since: Sep 19, 2018

Having used Samsungs one UI for a few weeks now, a well thought out OS is the best way to enjoy a larger screen. Android has always been way ahead of IOS in ease of use for larger phones, simply because you can bring icons and widgets to the bottom and have the three control buttons within easy reach at the bottom too.

12. Cat97

Posts: 1923; Member since: Mar 02, 2017

Just use the OnePlus gestures. They are perfectly logical and easy to use.

13. ShadowWarrior

Posts: 165; Member since: Aug 08, 2017

You totally forgot Motorola, which has the best in my opinion. It's just a shame that their phones are not on the level of the other flagships.

14. Carlitos

Posts: 671; Member since: Oct 23, 2011

I swear to the living God above, that Samsung also has side gestures if you wanna use those. I'm literally using them rn, am I going nuts?

17. XiPingpong

Posts: 12; Member since: Jan 26, 2019

I use the app "Fluid Navigation Gestures" by Francisco Barroso, and after using ADB on Linux Mint my Android phones all have good Gestures and no navigation buttons...!

18. ciprian.ruse

Posts: 320; Member since: May 13, 2014

Actually, gestures on my S9+ are excellent. I already forgot about navigation buttons.

36. RevolutionA

Posts: 398; Member since: Sep 30, 2017

Apple made a difference for whatever you use. The article is right!

20. Plasticsh1t

Posts: 3109; Member since: Sep 01, 2014

Gesture navigation is the future but it needs a lot of polishing to perfect the navigation through the UI. It'll get there.

22. L0n3n1nja

Posts: 1576; Member since: Jul 12, 2016

Some of you blindly hate Apple, Palm and BlackBerry flopped and had little influence on the market. Like it or not when Apple does something, even when they aren't first, the industry takes notice.

23. dmdzordilla

Posts: 60; Member since: Jul 31, 2018

Did you mean the gestures implemented with the Meego Nokia N9 author?

24. Kuroki

Posts: 183; Member since: Nov 24, 2013

Where the hell is MIUI? I think it's the most fluid implementation in android

25. monoke

Posts: 1172; Member since: Mar 14, 2015

If Google is really serious about gestures, they should look to Nokia's N9 Meego ui. Just implement that but with a home screen layer. Swipe from left edge for menu for certain apps could be from the upper edge only to solve that issue. Simple.

26. dmdzordilla

Posts: 60; Member since: Jul 31, 2018

Meego closes by swiping down from top of screen, going back home by swiping up from bottom of screen, notifications swipe from left of screen, recent apps by swiping from right of screen. When you open an app, either you close it by swiping down from the top, or back hime from bottom, or back from previous screen in that certain app by swiping left.

* Some comments have been hidden, because they don't meet the discussions rules.

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