Going ‘back’ to the basics
I recently started using Android again, on a time-share basis with iOS. I bought a Moto G4 as my secondary phone (because of Jio, of course) and I’m using Android after a gap of 2 years (my last tryst with Android was in 2014 on my Nexus 5 and LG G3). I’ll be writing a lot about Android from an iOS user’s perspective over the next few weeks but my first impressions are that in 2016, we are at a place where feature-parity has been achieved between the two smartphone operating systems and both of them provide great experiences to their users (Android does that at prices that are way lower than that of iOS devices, though). Of course, there are a few features and interface elements that are implemented a bit differently on the two OSes. Out of these, there is one interface element that I feel is done better by Android and Tim’s team should surely borrow it and implement it in iOS.
I’m talking about going back from one place to another inside an app or in the OS, in general. In iOS, if you want to go back to the previous page inside an app, you swipe to the right from the edge of the screen. If you came to an app by following a link from another app, since iOS 9, the OS shows a small arrow and the name of the app you came from on the top left of the screen, making it easy to keep tabs on where you are in the OS and go back to your previous app. If you want to go to your home screen, you need to press the home button to do so. Also, if you are on some other home screen and want to go to the first one, you press the home button again.
Android does it a bit differently, and in my opinion, a bit better. In addition to a home button (or a capacitive home key), Android has a dedicated capacitive key at the bottom-left corner of the screen which always takes you to the previous screen that you were on. It always works the same way and is one of the most consistent elements of the OS. If you are deep inside an app, tapping on the back button takes you to the previous page of that app and it keeps doing that till you reach the first page of the app. After that, when tapped, the back key takes you to your home screen. If you are on one of your other home screens and want to go back to the first one, you guessed it, tap the back button.
I think that Android’s implementation of the ‘going back’ element of the OS works better than iOS’s because of a couple of reasons. Firstly, the back button always stays at the bottom left of the screen on Android. Hence, it is easily accessible at all times. Also, because it is at the same place no matter where you are, you don’t need to make your thumb dance around or adjust your grip to go back. The other reason is that the cognitive load of going back on Android is less than that on iOS. On iOS, depending on where you are in the OS and where you want to go back to (to the home screen, to the previous app or to the previous page inside the current app), you need to think of the gesture you’ll use. It could be swiping from the left (needing you to adjust your grip), tapping the arrow on the top right (too hard to reach on the Plus models and too small a target) or press the home button. On Android, though, every time you want to go back, you just tap the back button. It just works.
I also think that with iOS 11 and the new iPhones next year, iOS’s ‘going back’ interactions could surpass Android’s. How? We’ve already taken the first step towards getting there. The physical home button has been replaced by a virtual one and it is now similar to the new Macbook’s force touch trackpad. And if rumours of the home button disappearing to make way for a force touch enabled bottom bezel come true, it could mean that we could see gestures getting implemented on iOS. That’d be so cool. Swipe left on the bottom of your phone, wherever you are in the OS. You won’t even have to lift your thumb to go tap on a button or arrow, just swipe it. Of course, it is easier said than done. But if anyone can do it well, it is Craig’s team and they need to, because right now, going back from one place to another in iOS is quite a mess for an OS that made its name by being the most intuitive around.
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