Android, Honeycomb and the missing menu button…

I’ve been giving some thought to the loss of the menu button (replaced – in a way – by the action bar) in Honeycomb lately and I have to say it’s a damned peculiar choice. The argument is that by unifying the UI on Honeycomb fragmentation will be reduced, but for full-screen apps, taking away the menu button on API 11+ builds, from the region of the screen that cannot be hidden, fosters UI fragmentation.

Consider apps that are meant to be full-screen, and may be deeply interactive (such as a game). Having the action bar onscreen is not tenable, so one hides it. Whereas before you could use the menu button in the gutter (where “home” and “back” reside and indeed where “menu” appears – only for legacy apps), now you must either code your own button or invent a unique (but intuitive!) gesture to accomplish the end result of opening a custom menu or showing the action bar. If that’s not UI fragmentation I don’t know what is!

Though I find the action bar awkwardly placed and non-intuitive for in-app interactions, I understand the merit of having a unified UI. What I find fault with is the shortsighted decision to effectively remove an important hard button from Android (does anyone miss the “search” button?)

Now we have only two guaranteed (not hideable) buttons left, for the purpose of app navigation: “back” and “home” – along with a third new button for fast task switching (which is a little redundant… long-press on the home button could easily have the same effect without adding buttons). In addition (and likely for the foreseeable future) we have a “menu” button that only appears for legacy apps (thus that space in the toolbar is already “reserved” and will remain so for quite some time).

It’s too bad… there’s a strong argument for always having a “menu” button handy in an always-visible place. Maybe it unhides your action bar, or maybe it opens a custom menu, but removing it doesn’t help matters: it simply encourages a new kind of fragmentation for apps that don’t need an action bar onscreen normally. Now, instead of having a consistent way to perform that “open menu” action everyone gets to do it their own way (or leave the action bar open full-time, which significantly detracts from some apps).

One of many things that I like about Android is that the basic controls (home, menu, back) are intuitive and reasonable, balancing function with minimalism. Contrast this with the one overloaded hard button in another popular OS: much like a one-button mouse, oversimplification leads to confusion, reduced functionality and a fragmented UI as everyone works around the limitation differently according to their app’s design.

The rationale for taking away the menu button – one of the three main “always-visible” navigation and control buttons for Android up to now – defies logic: it fails at reducing fragmentation and funnels developers (and thus users) into an awkward, one-size-fits-all paradigm that is the antithesis of Android. This loss of a “hard” menu button is an unwelcome reduction in basic functionality in an apparent nod to the oversimplification of other OSes. I don’t find fault with the existence of the action bar, but removing the dedicated menu button from the always-visible area of the screen was IMHO extremely shortsighted. Now, instead of having a convenient way to reveal a hidden action bar, one must figure out how to do this for each app that normally hides its action bar. All this for the sake of removing a button that appears anyway for legacy apps.

1 Comment

  1. Late comment…but had to support you on this.

    As a user, I always knew that if a menu or settings existed in an app, all I had to do was hit the “menu” button…it was one of the things you could count on…if it exists, the menu button will bring it up. The move towards a software menu button (and not even one tied to the other Android functions…back, home, etc) will only complicate things for average user.
    1. Developers won’t use it consistently and if they do use it, it will end up all over the device. Google has never been good about holding apps accountable to design specs.
    2. The small icon and inconsistent placement mean that it is hard to locate, unlike the simple button at the bottom of the phone…which was easy.
    3. The new action bar takes up screen space…even if it “disappears”.
    4. The “official” placement is NOT convenient for tablet users, or people that are used to working with one hand. Take the time to watch how 7-10 inch tablet users hold their devices…landscape with BOTH hands. Having the buttons (any buttons) in the center, or at the top of the screen means you have to readjust. This is also true with the larger phones…the upper right corner is difficult to reach, depending on how you hold your device.
    5. Some have suggested that losing the physical buttons for the activity bar makes the phone more attractive…but really, who cares? I want a phone that is easy to use, not pretty
    6. Yes, manufacturers were not consistent in the placement of the buttons from phone to phone (at least you had a button and always knew where to find it). Google certainly didn’t object, so what makes us think that they will enforce any consistency with menu button or activity bar use in apps?

    My question is (and I haven’t gotten a good answer yet)…was this decision really based on improving the user experience (I don’t think so), or based on phone costs and making things easier for themselves and developers? Most developers will tell you, it makes life more difficult.
    Consumers keep saying over and over (through surveys, forums, etc) that they NEED consistency they can count on (between all apps and functions) for it to be SIMPLE, and for it to work and be functional right out of the box. #1 stated reasons people abandon Android for iPhones. “easier to use”, ” I don’t have to manage my phone”, everything works the same way, I can find what I need”.

    Interesting to note…Hardcore Android fans are quick to dismiss Microsoft and Windows 7 or 8, but user ergonomics (how you hold a device, what is easiest and most comfortable, what is the most consistent use) is precisely what they have studied and are developing W8 for. Also interesting…look back at Android reviews from the first couple of years. Over and over, having the physical buttons were highly rated and considered by many as a strength over iPhone. However I’m not surprised. To my mind…Google and Android are constantly handicapping themselves and their products, moving from idea to idea, never finishing or perfecting a good idea. As a friend described it…”Like a bunch of teenagers with Attention Deficit Disorder”, with no clear path or direction. I was a fan at one time, but after spending so much time struggling with issues ….sorry to say they are losing me.

    Thanks for reading. I’m sure many disagree but that’s what makes life interesting. Peace and health to all.


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