Google is finally putting an end to the menu button which has probably been one of Android’s biggest downsides UI wise. They are telling developers to stop thinking of those actions that used to be there inside the menu button, and instead use the most important ones in the “action bar” that’s in Android 4.0+, or even implement them inside the app, as many iOS developers have already done on their iOS apps, and other Android developers have done it, too.
So why am I saying the menu button was such a big problem? There are 2 reasons – one that is that the physical buttons are completely disconnected from the touch experience, and second is that the menu makes things too complicated, and most regular people don’t know how to use it properly.
The first time I got my Android phone and I started playing around with it, I noticed I kept forgetting about the physical buttons at the bottom of the screen because my eyes were completely focused on the touchscreen and what I could see and touch on it. So in the first few moments of trying some apps, I was looking for buttons and ways to interact with on the screen, and couldn’t find them. After a few seconds, I would remember that I could push the back button or the menu button to see if it has some action in there that I can use.
Of course, I rarely have such problems anymore, but the point is the physical buttons just weren’t very intuitive, and that’s why I was glad Google was moving to virtual buttons. I mean, the manufacturers were already moving towards capacitive buttons, and virtual buttons are pretty much the same thing, without the disconnect from the touchscreen that I was mentioning earlier.
The second problem with the UI was the menu button itself, which makes the user interface too deep for normal people. It’s much more intuitive to see a button directly inside the app, on the screen, that lets you, say delete a message, than to go to the menu to find the delete button in the list. You do twice as much the work for these simple actions, and they add up, so it becomes frustrating sometimes.
Google’s replacement to the menu button will be the action bar from now on, which allows developers to have contextual buttons based on what the screen is about. This should make Android apps more intuitive and Android in general as well. Also, the button that will replace it at the bottom of the screen, is the multi-tasking button. Again this makes the UI vastly more intuitive than the hold-down action on the home button, which you can only discover by accident if it’s the first time you’re using an Android phone.
These virtual buttons should help improve Android’s user experience a bit more, although I’m still not sure having the buttons permanently occupy space at the bottom is the ultimate user experience either. Gestures might work even better, and they would save space, but they would need to find 3 gestures that are very intuitive and can replace the current 3 buttons in Android 4.0.