Why iOS Can Be of Inspiration in Making Android More Intuitive

I have used Android since late 2010, when it started becoming a more mature operating system and a respected player on the market. Although I switched to Google’s platform about 2 years after its initial release, the system has kept on evolving, and came to be my favorite mobile operating system. Android has been a trendsetter over the years and has introduced several handy innovations, such as a central notification hub, remote installation of applications and more. Even today, Android has features neither iOS nor Windows Phone or Blackberry have and remains a source of inspiration thanks to its unified sharing system and widgets.

Nonetheless, not all Android devices are consistent and easy to use at first, and many find iOS to be simpler to get accustomed to. While I don’t fully agree with this, I have compared the ease of use of my iPad with my Galaxy Note II, and it is clear that there are instances where Android could learn a bit from the simplicity of iOS.


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Keep in mind that this post was written around the time iOS 7 was announced, but since that is still in beta, the article is based on the previous versions of the platform.

Interface

With iOS, Apple introduced an easy to use interface that remains consistent across the operating system. The various tabs and sections of any application are always displayed at the bottom of the screen and the button at the top left corner is usually used to go back to the previous screen. At the top right corner, there’s either a search bar or a validation button. These interface guidelines are respected throughout the system but also by most third party developers.

The AppStore in iOS, a clear example of Apple's consistent user interface

The AppStore in iOS, a clear example of Apple’s consistent user interface

The user experience on Android used to be particularly inconsistent, especially before the Holo reboot with Ice Cream Sandwich. Today, Google applications are much more coherent with each other in terms of look and feel. However, some elements are still placed differently, even in the default Android applications! For instance:

  • in the Contacts application, the three panes are shown at the top, with various options — Search, New Contact and Menu — displayed at the bottom.
  • in the Calendar app, there is only a bar at the top, which also houses the Menu button. Gmail remains the same, with the Menu and New Email options at the top and no bar at the bottom.
  • but if you look at the Google Translate app, it’s even worse, as the Menu button is at the top, while there are other options at the bottom.

I’m not saying the applications don’t look similar, but surely the different teams could have aligned their design cues for the options to be placed the same way. This would have also made it easier for developers to remain consistent and follow one set of guidelines.

3 Google apps on Android that don't respect the same user experience

3 Google apps on Android that don’t respect the same user experience

Gestures

When it comes to gestures, iOS has kept the same since the very first release of the platform. Deleting a message, an email or a file is always done by swiping from left to right and pressing the red icon. Similarly, refreshing any list is a “pull to refresh” away. These simple gestures were easy for third party developers to mimic, and users quickly learned them because they were implemented consistently in various apps — Email, Messages, Contacts…

Dropbox for iOS supports swipe to delete, but the Android version doesn't

Dropbox for iOS supports swipe to delete, but the Android version doesn’t

When it comes to Android, I realized that while I knew how to do the various gestures, many of my friends never heard of them, to my greatest surprise. My colleague triggered this revelation when he bought a Nexus 4 and asked me how to close apps. When it told him to swipe left or right on the multitasking card, he told me it wasn’t easy to guess because the gesture wasn’t implemented anywhere else. And I realized he was right. Swiping left or right in Android is usually a way to flip pages or switch tabs but not to delete or remove something — except in Chrome and, more recently, Google Now.

Google even introduced a similar gesture in Gmail to archive messages, which makes it a little more consistent, but the feature is still specific to the app. Samsung has implemented the same gesture within the Contacts app, instead of deleting a contact, it is used to call them or send a message.

The more you look at Android in an objective manner, the more it becomes clear that there should be some consistency in the platform, and clear guidelines from Google for the developers to respect. We seem to be on the correct path though, with Google releasing a very consistent design language with their latest app updates to Play Music, Play Books, Gmail, Drive, Google+ and YouTube.

Consistency Across Devices and Versions

One arguably good thing about iOS is that no matter the device it’s running on, it’ll always look the same — unless the device has been jailbroken and heavily customized, but we won’t get there. I still have an original iPhone at home, and when I put it next to my iPad, the interface, its look and feel have all been kept similar and coherent.

Android doesn’t look the same as it did in 2007 — thankfully! — but any two Android devices from different manufacturers never look or feel the same thanks to heavy customizations and skins. While the ability to personalize Android has been one of its core strengths, many manufacturer skins have taken it a step too far. HTC and Samsung, for instance, replace the default Android applications, such as the keyboard, email, messaging and calendar. This makes it very confusing for the end user, as the system apps are different even though the phones are supposed to run the same OS. There are also cases where manufacturers design applications with less features to worsen the problem. And lastly, because manufacturer skins tend to be different from the Android experience, these replacement apps will be extremely inconsistent and seem to come from another platform — I’m thinking of Samsung’s horrendous email app.

Samsung replaced Google's beautiful email client with the most repulsive one I've seen

Samsung replaced Google’s beautiful email client with the most repulsive one I’ve seen

Google has tried to reduce this annoyance for end users by making some of their official apps available on the Play Store, such as the official Calendar and Keyboard apps. Nevertheless, the latter is not available in my country, which led to even more frustration on my side.

Android allows for alternative ROMs to replace to original one on your phone, but that process is almost never easy, and will most likely void your warranty. Google should therefore force manufacturers to make these interfaces easily removable, so that users can revert to stock Android seamlessly. [Editor note: while it’s not exactly what Hagop is asking for, the move to offer the Galaxy S4, HTC One and Xperia Z as Google Edition devices is a step in the right direction. Users won’t be able to remove skins from their current devices, but they will finally have the option to get an unadulterated version of Android on the new hardware they want to buy, instead of having to resort to hacking custom ROMs on them.]

Room for Improvement

Google has worked hard at making Android a lot more consistent and good-looking through recent releases. They definitely succeeded at turning it into an eye-candy platform that even iOS got inspired from in their latest iOS 7. Thanks to the Holo and Cards UI, many users now prefer to run stock Android on their devices, rather than a manufacturer skin. Google should continue improving the platform by making it simpler to use, but also by providing clear design and gesture cues to developers and manufacturers in order to keep things coherent across devices, screens and applications. One option could be to let users remove a manufacturer UI without having to root or change ROMS on their device.

I’m confident Google will keep making making Android more consistent and intuitive soon — Key Lime Pie anyone? It’s important for them to use Holo as a stepping stone, draft an even simpler user interface and put consistent and structured guidelines in place for developers to implement.