A short while ago, I wrote a blog post “Android Design Guideline Nonsense” where I simply brought up the issue that, unlike the historically respected Apple Human Interface Guidelines, the Android Design Guidelines were very new and that they still haven’t earned credibility. At the same time, there were some items in the Android Guidelines that were questionable, which simply means that it will take further effort from Google to establish the Android Guidelines as a definitive resource.
However, Google actually moved in the opposite direction. On May 20th, 2014, Google updated its Google+ Android app, which significantly diverges from their own guidelines. This naturally brings into question whether Google’s internal App development teams are respecting the guidelines or not. On the surface, it looks like they are not.
First, let’s look at what the new Google+ app looks like. Unfortunately, I hardly ever use Google+ so I’ll use screenshots that I’ve found on the web.
Here, JR Raphael tries to reassure Android developers that the Hamburger Navigation (Navigation Drawer) is not going away despite it disappearing from the Google+ application. He shows the above comparison between the old app (on the left, with the Navigation Drawer showing) and the new one. The Action Bar on the new Google+ app (the red bar on the top) is the one that is very different from Google’s Guidelines.
First of all, the use of the “▼” to indicate a pull-down menu (as seen on the “JR” and “Everything” elements in the screenshot) is not standard on Android. The standard is to use what Android calls a “spinner” which is denoted by a triangle on the bottom right corner as in the following image (taken from the guidelines).
Spinners are quite used quite flexibly with Android and serve multiple purposes. However, they are never denoted by a “▼” symbol.
If fact, the menu with the “▼” symbol in the new Google+ app is not a spinner. It is a completely new element that is not described in the Android Guidelines. In the following image from ArsTechnica, you can see how it transitions to a full-screen page which by all accounts is a replacement for the Navigation Drawer. It is completely new in the sense that it is not a part of the global navigation, because unlike the Navigation Drawer, it is not accessible from deeper down in the hierarchy; you need to navigate back to the root level to be able to access this menu. Furthermore, it is visually separate from the Action Bar and is closer to the page content in appearance. Whereas the Navigation Drawer was a component of the Action Bar, this new UI does not seem to be.
I do not claim to know whether this new “▼” menu is a good idea or not from a usability point of view. Looking at the comments on the blog entries, it looks like opinion is divided.
What is clear is that this is confusing Android UI designers. It is confusing those designers that vowed to adhere to the Android guidelines. It is causing legitimate concern over whether the Navigation Drawer is going to be de-emphasized in the future. The Navigation Drawer has always been a controversial UI control due to it not being well recognized by many users. The hope was that as the Navigation Drawer becomes popular, more users will easily recognize it and even expect it. If Google decides that they are not going to use the Navigation Drawer anymore in their apps, users will not less educated on it and will recognize it less when it appears on third-party developer’s apps. If this is the case in the future, then developers should try not to use the Navigation Bar at all.
A further concern is that instead of using a UI control already present in the Android SDK, Google+ created their own custom control. They could have used Action Tabs, which are supported in the Android SDK, but they didn’t. The question is why? Why didn’t Google+ use Android SDK controls. Did they think that the current controls were insufficient for their needs? More specifically, did they think that the previous Navigation Drawer didn’t cut it, which is apparently what Facebook thought when they ditched it? It would be very disheartening if this was the case.
Now compare this to iOS. The applications from Apple all use standard controls available in X-code, and none use custom elements that significantly deviate from the standards. Apple truly eats its own dog food. What’s more significant is that these controls have been largely unchanged in functionality since the original iPhone (although they were given a visual redesign in iOS7) so iOS users are extremely familiar with them. The contrast between Google’s and Apple’s approach could not be stronger.
A while ago, Cennydd Bowles, design manager at Twitter wrote a post “Why don’t designers take Android seriously?”. My feeling towards Google is “Why doesn’t Google take Android Guidelines seriously?”.
As such, it seems unlikely that Android Design Guidelines will ever earn the respect that Apple’s guidelines receives. As a result, Android apps will never be as consistent as iOS apps.