The case for a single, unified gesture navigation system for smartphones
This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In modern days, Apple led the way with gestures on the iPhone X, but there are flaws
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'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 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
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!
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 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.
A unified gesture system can become the USB-C of smartphone software
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?