Google's New Phone: A Lesson In The Dangers Of Gesture-Heavy UIs

In building a minimalist UI for its much-anticipated Moto X, Google has gone too far, replacing traditional navigation tools with a host of overly complicated gestures.

Interacting with touch-screen devices is a process already flooded with gestures. We spend so much time swiping, pinching, poking, dragging, tapping, and shaking our devices that it must look like we’re simulating a fencing match with our index fingers, rather than playing with our beloved smartphones and tablets.

But this week, we saw how far this already gesture-overloaded world of touch interactions could go. In leaked screenshots said to show the software piloting Google’s much-anticipated Moto X smartphone, we got a look at the latest version of Android, which distances itself from traditional navigation tools (buttons, icons, menus) in favor of a cleaner (if not nonexistent) interface that heavily relies on what’s not displayed on screen—that is, the invisible gestures we use to control our gadgets. It signals a future where an ever-growing list of interactions is not immediately intuitive but taught to us instead.

As the report spells out, the new Moto X software features a "minimalist" experience, with a "big focus on gestures and unobtrusive controls." However, the interactions are not so much minimalist as they are complicated, and the controls are not so much unobtrusive as they are invisible. In the leaked photos, for example, which reportedly highlight the Moto X’s camera interface, we see a slew of gestures that are novel but far from immediately obvious. In addition to a number of interactions that are accessed by swiping from the edge of the phone—to bring up the camera’s settings or a gallery of photos, swipe from the left and right edges of your device—there are interactions that require training to use. Indeed, the new software apparently comes preloaded with directions when you first use the camera service, including:

  • "Drag up and down to zoom"
  • "Twist your wrist twice, quickly to launch camera anytime"
  • "Tap anywhere to take a photo, hold for multiple shots"

It serves as a reminder that "minimalism," as the report refers to it, if too stripped down, can simply be confusing. Steven Sinofsky, the former head of Microsoft’s Windows division who oversaw its dramatic redesign of Windows 8, was one of the first to call out Google. "Wonder if this will come with a training video, in-store help, and a printed manual?" he tweeted sarcastically.

That’s not to say unique and novel gestures are bad. They can serve as smart, simple, and often fun ways to interact with your device, and we’ve seen them implemented in brilliant and elegant ways, such as with apps like Clear and Mailbox.

But we’ve increasingly seen the need for tutorials when introducing an app’s set of tools—the digital equivalent of IT manuals. While these tutorials are lightweight and easy to understand—usually displayed as a transparent overlay atop of your app—they’ve started to feel more like a football coach’s playbook, with arrows and lines delineating directions. Sometimes they’re worth the lesson—Paper’s iPad app, for example, teaches us to move our finger in a counter-clockwise motion to rewind through our history—but they also can often feel unintuitive. Requiring a user to twist his or her arm—twice, rapidly—to launch a camera? That’s perhaps going too far: You’ll start to feel like Harry Potter learning a new wand motion at Hogwarts to play a trick on Draco Malfoy.

The larger problem here is that these interactions are often app-specific and not universal. So while we might learn a new set of gestures, say, for Google’s camera app, they likely won’t apply to a different Android camera, let alone a product from Apple or Microsoft. Our library of gestures becomes even more fragmented in the developer world, with each startup’s new app featuring this new style of swiping or that new way of tapping.

It’s why we’re often eased into learning more gestures over time, usually for basic funtions: It takes time to learn them and we can only learn so many. So while Loren Brichter’s now-famous pull-to-refresh interaction was first introduced on the iPhone through his third-party Tweetie app, its design DNA eventually migrated to countless other services, including Apple’s mail client. Why? Because it was such a core function that it required a gesture—and a simple one at that.

Just because we have touch devices with accelerometers does not give app makers the excuse to overwhelm users with gestures, especially if they’re unnecessary and complicated. In fact, an early member of Apple’s iPhone team once told me the company had considered implementing a range of gestures for the original device—but the team quickly realized they were far from intuitive. The reason? Because Apple understood users would need a manual to know how they work.

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  • Steven Lacks

    My main problem with this article (and the comments) is that Android stock camera already has swipe in gestures. I was a Nexus 4 owners. They work, but they are a bit complicated and there's too many ways to touch an icon, hold,  or swipe.  This seems to simplify that. It's a step in the right direction.

  • Hm

    No-one has really picked up on a bigger issue here - if this is where Google are going with the Moto X, what will happen with regular old Android? Are they about to fragment even further, starting down a road to developing Moto X and Android in parallel (what a mess), or are they getting ready to drop Android completely?

    As to the new gestures - some of these certainly seem interesting. While not immediately intuitive, I expect they would become second nature to most after a short learning period. But they do seem more like complimenting gestures rather than the basis for a whole new user interface. I can imagine Apple adding some of these as optional 'Accessibility' gestures, just like I can imagine them adding the Samsung 'eye-tracking' feature, which is useless for most people but does add real accessibility value to the impaired.

  • ThisIs Sparta

    someone here already tested the phone? i think no, so its just cry over tears about how apple is lost in time and cannot innovate anymore...

  • aeroblazer

    Give me a break. Really? Being able to open an app without unlocking your phone, navigating to your app tray, and clicking on the icon is too difficult for you? Don't use the gesture, then. Use your same old "this isn't how Apple does it" and keep your head in the sand. Good grief.

  • GifCo

    Are you kidding??? This article was pretty sad to begin with but then ending it with that crap about how well Apple understands people and would never use gestures like this is ridiculous! 
    First off the gestures listed are so simple and intuitive (the camera app gestures are the same as the new Android lock screen where you can swipe right to your camera or left to lock screen apps) that if you cant figure out how to use them you should not be using a smart phone at all!! 
    Also Angus hit the nail on the head for Microsoft to comment on this when they created the worst UI of all time is hilarious. We live in a complex and advanced society and simple tools dont cut it, I dont want a phone where i have to go through 10 menus when a simple gesture will do. If i cant remember a gesture then its a function i rarely if ever use and I could care less.
    We should not be dumbing down technology for lazy people we should be elevating technology so intelligent people can make the world a better place.

  • Rawfires

    Not concerned. the wrist flick is a ridiculous...however we are reaching a point where everyone has grown up with video games, desktop applications, web, phone, and the list goes on. Intuitive in this business is actually learned behaviors...the learning curve has diminished
    I can learn to drive a different car even if the wipers are on the other side of the wheel and turn the opposite direction...we all know how to interact with a car..."the wipers are here somewhere"So I say relax Austin Carr and Steven Sinofsky...Apps that are beyond being "learned" will not be used and die..or will be considered ahead of there time.(lol)

  • Roberto Tomás

    I'm not too concerned with the gestures it listed .. it might take a refresher from time to time to know what to do, but they don't seem overwhelming.

    What I am concerned about is this direction Google is taking, of adding custom, google-only additions to Android.

  • Angus

    The Moto design sounds shitty, but… Sinofsky's criticism is kind of ironic, given Windows 8's infamous decision to rely on invisible, complicated gestures even when running on non-touch devices.

  • Mathieu Gosselin

    The most complex gestures are just a shortcut to certain functionalities, but i don't believe it replaces those. You could probably still go to those app or use those in a regular way. So those are destined for more advanced users i guess. 
    The gain in productivity and speed is quite dramatic with some gestures as such. (I've discovered it while designing our own app.)

    As for the simplest one, like settings/gallery on the sides, i think the speed gain will overweight the drawback. That's what design is all about, making choices. And on my phone i want to be able to rapidly access some features more than others. Especially gallery and settings for instance. That's exactly what this redesign is about. And i'm not working for Google, but i think i can see the benefit and the reason for that approach. 

    Just hopefully for Google they user tested it in and out before coming up with that. Amen

  • C.

    I think I agree.

    As long as there are still obvious markers on the screen for menu controls (can I just click on Settings or Gallery to bring those menus out?), then Google experimenting with new gestures is a good thing.  But, expecting people to remember these gestures is probably a mistake, since few people use the camera enough to remember non-standard gestures.  My family takes very few pictures on our phones, and none of us remember the 'advanced' features the mobile cameras have.
    But, gestures can also be intrusive.  As an example, on my iPhone I have Chrome mobile installed which is, overall, a better browser than Safari.  More tabs, quicker search, better bookmarks, ect... BUT! Chome has a gesture to allow you to switch between tabs by swiping from the side of the phone screen to go backwards/forwards in your tab list.

    I never remember that when I'm browsing a page and want to scroll side to side (the iPhone screen is tiny).

    I'm sure that the designers at Google thought it was useful, and I still think it's a cool feature, but it's annoying and task breaking whenever it seems to happen to me.  Hopefully, Google isn't putting any features like that into the new gesture controls, or will be willing to fix those issues as they arise.

    New gestures to aid experts? Great... New gestures to take over as invisible controls? Disaster.

  • iamnoskcaj

    Gestures like these will become second nature to kids and young adults who have grown up with these technologies.  It might be difficult, or practically impossible for some people to learn these things, but it's child's play to someone with an open mind and simple hand-eye coordination/dexterity (assuming that incentive exists to encourage people to try to learn).

    I tend to agree about application specific gestures being challenging, if the same principles aren't universally employed for similar-ish tasks.  Imagine all the things the Blackberry did with a simple wheel scrolling up and down.  People did it with their eyes closed.  Granted it had tactile response and feedback, but it was a learned concept that became second nature.  

    A neat example of a mobile OS with lots of universal-ish gestures is the sailfishOS.  Check it out.