What's Wrong With the Most Important Android App?

By Zigurd Mednieks
August 22, 2011

Android Apps and Google's ecosystem
In addition to giving the world a great operating system and client Java runtime environments for third-party applications, Google uses Android to advance its own ecosystem. Google does this through apps like Android's browser, GMail, and Maps and Navigation. These apps set a high standard.

Unlike the Android Open Source Project, Google's own set of applications are often not open source. Some of these apps are becoming comparable to other big-budget, category-dominating proprietary software like Microsoft Office, or Autocad. These are the apps that Google uses to turn free Android into revenue-producing location-based searches, and to support other business models built on Android.

Setting High Standards
These apps are the epitome of Android application design, and in places they push the capabilities of Android and mobile handset hardware to their limit. Google's Maps and Navigation app had such a strong effect on how people use GPS navigation that it knocked a large chunk off the value of makers of standalone GPS navigation devices, and has been a leader in innovation in map and navigation features - especially where it can take advantage of 3G connectivity.

Android Tablets Need Great Apps
Android was not always the fastest-growing mobile OS. When it launched, Android was the geeky junior cousin of iOS. Refinement of the Android OS, improved phones, and compelling, high-value applications all played a part in making Android the leading handset OS.

Similarly, the Android tablet launch did not get off to a roaring start on the expensive and premature Xoom. Instead, it is building momentum on tablets currently in the $350 to $400 price range, from OEMs like ASUS, Acer, and Toshiba. Some applications, like YouTube, GMail and Maps have brilliant tablet-specific implementations that are building the foundation of a similar success for Android tablets. But there is a key application that has fallen short of adding to application-based success for Android: Google+.

Google+ is a key product for Google as a whole. Larry Page famously made social networking success the basis for every Googler's bonus, and Google appears to have hit the ball out of the park with Google+. The Web interface to Google+ is a big part of the success. For example, drag-drop grouping of people into "circles," is much easier than managing lists in Twitter. A touch-based interface with even more direct manipulation possibilities is a natural for tablets, and tablets are a natural for using social networks. The lean-back sprawl on the couch use case for tablets is ideal for staying social - not sitting at your desk with your back to the people around you.

But the Android Google+ app is a disappointment on a tablet, and it's only so-so on a handset. That's not a good thing if social networking determines every Googler's bonus. so let's take a detailed look at what Google needs to improve to make Google+ the best social network on the go. If you want to play along at home, you can get the Android Google+ app here: https://ssl.gstatic.com/android/market/com.google.android.apps.plus/ss-480-0-1

Google+ app deficiency #1: It's useless offline
GMail for Android is an example of just how good an app-based offline experience for a Web-based service can be. Google+ needs an offline user interface for composing posts and managing people, circles, and other low-velocity data.

Recommendation: Even when online, a synchronized local store of posts would make the user interface instantly responsive when now one must wait for data to come over the network.

Google+ app deficiency #2: It has a useless front page
"Home," on the Web interface to Google+, is your "Stream" page. "Home," on Android, is one of those uninformative, can't do any but navigate to someplace where you can do something "dashboard" screens that a Google engineer recommended in a blog entry on design. Designers, please ignore this and do not add a do-nothing screen to apps. "Dashboard" screens are also a symptom of not thinking about matching multiple intent actions. (What? You say your interaction designer is unfamiliar with that concept?)

Recommendation: Android apps should not have a single home if they don't need one. The Stream activity should match the MAIN intent, and be where Google+ starts by default.

Google+ app deficiency #3: Poor contact integration, no direct manipulation of people and circles
Is a person in your contacts? Is a contact in your circles? Google+ should tell you. There is no long-press to pop-up ways to communicate with a person.

Recommendation: Implement long-press to pop up ways of communicating with people. Implement dragging contacts onto circles, as in the Web UI.

Google+ app deficiency #4: The "Manage Views" feature is almost good, and it could be great
The "Manage views" menu enables you to configure stream filtering as a set of "views" that can be flicked (left/right flick gesture) into view. A brilliant feature - the kind that could really endear the mobile app to users. Problem is, it is misnamed, buried behind a menu and a configuration activity, and mis-configured with the wrong defaults.

The "manage views" feature is also local and not synchronized, so using two devices results in two different sets of views. All the more reason to have the default be that all your circles are accessible through the left/right gesture.

Recommendation: Remove the need to "manage views" and enable access to all of one's circles with a left or right flick as the default.

Google+ app deficiency #5: Too many lists, not enough context
The app has too many screens that look alike, but do different things: Your list of circles is presented to you several times, in different situations. In a Fragment-style UI, this would be no problem, because the other fragments on the screen would provide context. But, on a handset UI, remembering that, in this case, you are selecting a circle in order to configure that stream into your "flickable" streams, versus adding that circle to a shared post, can be confusing.

Recommendation: Consider using a semi-transparent activity, to provide context, since the act of picking circles is usually a quick, minor, modal interaction that does not lead to other places.

Google+ app deficiency #6: It looks bad on a tablet
That "dashboard" activity that only provides you with a way to get someplace where you can actually do something, shows its lack of functionality and information density even more on a tablet, where the dashboard icons are spread out and lonely on an empty screen. Lists stretch awkwardly across the width of a tablet. Moving to a new activity just to select a circle when a drag-drop operation would be more pleasurable is more plodding.

Recommendation: This is an app that should have been using the Android Compatibility Package (ACP) from the start in order to enable the use of Fragment, and provide an adaptable user experience across a wide range of screen sizes. Honeycomb APIs have been publicly available in the Android SDK since January, 2011. There is no reason the Google+ app on Android could not have been as exemplary as GMail and other apps that have Fragment-based user interfaces, and have kept back-compatibility with ACP.

Android tablets need a great Google+ app, and Google+ needs a great device-based user experience. There are other things Google could do to boost the success of Android tablets, but that's a whole other blog post.


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