Mobile phone navigation gestures: They suck & you’ll love them

July 11, 2018 •
Mobile Phone UX gesture navigation feature image

My new phone has killer specs

I just got a new phone. And if you know me at all, you’ll know I’m pretty bloody excited about it!

But I bet you can’t guess why.

Well, you’ll probably guess part of it. It’s the OnePlus 6 – the company’s latest and greatest poster-boy device. Snapdragon 845, 8GB RAM, 128GB storage, 6.3” AMOLED display, lightning-fast facial recognition and fingerprint sensor, fastest charging tech going around, Android 8.1, flagship quality camera (including portrait mode, front and back), 84% screen-to-body ratio…

But I’m more excited about its new navigation gestures

I really do dig those specs, so if you assumed that’s what I’m excited about, you’re partly right. But there’s something else…

It has navigation gestures.

By that, I mean you can use a finger gesture instead of a home button to go to your home screen. Same for going back and also for accessing your recents menu. (If you’re an iPhone user, you may not know that Android has dedicated buttons for those last two.)

Of course, the OnePlus 6 isn’t the first phone with navigation gestures. It’s not even the first OnePlus phone with them. But it is my first phone with them.

Even though I don’t actually like them

And you know what? I don’t like these shiny new nav gestures!

I mean, I think they’re way cool (the cool kids still use that phrase, right?) and I feel quite the early adopter, having mastered them. But I turned them off after just a couple of days, and reverted to buttons.

It’s not just the OnePlus gestures I don’t like, either. Apple’s suck too, and so do Google’s and Motorola’s. See for yourself…

Here’s a comparison of the nav gestures of Google vs Motorola vs OnePlus:

And here’s a demo of Apple’s nav gestures:

As you can see, they all do it a little differently. But none of them do it well…

They’re slow

All the gestures in the above videos are slower than using the current buttons, simply because your thumb has to travel further, and sometimes even hold.

(The only possible exception is the iPhone gesture for accessing your last used app. Swiping the bar at the bottom of the page is faster than double-tapping the Home button then tapping the last app. But it’s slower if the app you’re after wasn’t one of the last three you used. If it was the fourth-last one, you have to swipe four times, which is slower than double-tapping Home then tapping the app in Recents.)

They offer less certainty

When I swipe up from the bottom of my phone, I’m never 100% sure I’m not going to accidentally tap and open something within the current app, or simply scroll up within the current app.

(Sure, you could say the same about swiping down to see your notifications, but you do that far less often than going home.)

Also if, like me, you have uncoordinated thumbs, swiping with them is more lucky-dip than navigation. Tapping a button requires downwards control, not side-to-side control. For me, personally, side-to-side is far more challenging, and I’m assuming it is for other people too. They’re called ‘opposable thumbs’ because their primary purpose is opposing the force of your fingers in a grasping motion. So you can pick things up and bash other creatures over the head with them. The tapping motion is the same as the grasping motion (same vector, less force). The swiping motion is completely different.

They’re unintuitive

Why swipe up from the bottom of the screen to go back or to the home screen? That gesture doesn’t emulate the way you go back or clear your desk in real life. Plus your finger doesn’t even start on the thing you’re manipulating!

Same goes for swiping up then holding. You don’t immediately think, “I’m about to see all the places I’ve put things”.

None of these gestures is any more intuitive than the buttons we already have.

They’re incompatible with phone design trends

Manufacturers these days are all trying to maximise screen real estate (screen-to-body ratio). ‘Bezel-less’ phones are now the big thing, and big ‘chins’ are, like, so 2017!

But have you tried swiping up from the bottom on a phone with a very small chin? I have, and it ain’t easy. To ensure you’re swiping by the time you get to the touchscreen, so you don’t accidentally tap something, you need a bit of a run-off – starting in the chin area. But finding the right starting point is tough when your phone has a small chin. You have to be very precise, and very conscious of what you’re doing. Otherwise you end up starting too low (on the edge of the phone, which is basically a speedhump) or on the touchscreen itself (which means you tap something).

Now throw a phone case into the mix. Manufacturers are all trying to create thin, elegant phones, which tend to be delicate and slippery, so everyone puts cases on them. And by design, those cases wrap around, slightly, onto the face of the phone, in order to stay on. This makes the chin even smaller. Plus they have a lip that rises slightly higher than the screen, so you can put your phone face-down and without scratching it. Both of these features make it even harder to find the starting point for your swipe, and even more likely you’ll hit the speed hump. Only now the speed-hump is even bigger (the sticky-uppy lip of the case).

And even if you don’t use a case, or you use one with no lip at the bottom, you’ll probably still have a screen-protector on. This introduces another speed-hump. Your thumb now catches on both the end of the phone and on the edge of the screen-protector!

These may seem like petty criticisms, but they were actually the main reasons I gave up using the nav gestures on my OnePlus 6. Far from being smooth and natural, they were full of bumps and catches that made me consciously think about the mechanics and outcome of every action, every time I swiped. And that’s definitely not what you want when you want it to feel like second-nature.

But they’re still the way of the future

Despite all of these problems, though, today’s navigation gestures represent the dawn of a new mobile UX paradigm.

In a few years, the Home button will be nothing more than an embarrassing blemish on the face of tech. Like Betamax, MySpace and Apple. (Had to be done. 😉

You’ll love nav gestures, and you’ll wonder how you ever got by without them.

Here’s why…

Consider the gestures you use on your phone already… Swipe to the left and whatever’s on the screen moves to the left – just as it would if you swiped something on your desk to the left. Swipe to the right, and it moves to the right. Swipe up, it moves up. Down, it moves down. It’s all intuitive because it emulates real-world control.

And when you interact with your phone in a way that emulates real life, you develop a feeling – a connection with your phone – that you don’t get when you just press buttons. That’s why touchscreens are so popular.

Or, in the words of the incredibly awesome and amazingly talented copywriter, Angela Rodgers:

“It’s like browsing a catalogue or turning the pages in a book. Much more tangible and memorable.”

As a user, you may not think this feeling is a big deal. I don’t either. It certainly hasn’t slowed me down; I’ve become so used to the Home, Back and Recents buttons that I use them without conscious thought now. But that’s habit, not instinct.

And mobile phone manufacturers are very aware of that distinction and its impact on your feelings. They know that natural, intuitive user experiences result in more sales. Remember Apple’s tagline when the iPhone came out?:

“You already know how to use it.”

‘Nuf said.

So in my not-very-humble opinion, mobile navigation gestures are the way of the (very near) future. Guaranteed. And as a UX nerd, I’m very excited to experience on that evolution.

Your thoughts?

Have you used navigation gestures on your phone yet? If so, which phone? And what do you think of them? Please comment below.

Feel free to comment...
comment avatar
Anna Butler wrote on July 13th, 2018

I've got a Motorola G6 S which comes with a range of navigation gestures and a mini swipe pad instead of the home button (which allows for fingerprint unlocking). I'm enjoying a lot of the nav features - such as the pinch in to see recent apps and pinch out to see all pages (except if you're on a website where these gestures work to zoom in and out, which is what you want - in which case, swiping right on the home pad brings up recent apps). It also lets me access the camera with a quick double twist of the wrist - even if the phone is locked. And the torch is turned on or off using two quick chopping motions.... so no having to open the phone to find the "on" button. I definitely use these all the time and find them very handy. Perhaps because it lets me set the majority of gestures I want to connect to which actions, so I can choose what makes sense to me.

comment avatar
Glenn Murray wrote on July 13th, 2018

Hey Anna. Interesting. Re the pinch gestures, do you mean on the mini swipe pad or on-screen? Re the screen-ff gestures, yeah, I love this stuff. With the OnePlus I can draw an O, M, W, V or S on the screen when the phone is asleep and it will do something. I get to choose what. I can select from a few things like Selfie Cam or start an app. I use O for camera, S for selfie camera, M for video (*m*ovie) and V for torch. Not using W yet. I can also draw a > when music is playing to skip to the next track, a < to go back, or a 2-finger downswipe (pause symbol) to pause or play. In fact, these screen-off gestures and the alert slider are really important features to me. Some of the biggest reasons I went back to OP.

comment avatar
Alessio Rigoli wrote on September 28th, 2020

I must say I personally find the onscreen buttons much faster although it is still nice having some hardware buttons as a backup.

comment avatar
Glenn Murray wrote on October 29th, 2020

I haven't had a phone with hardware buttons in years. Not since my Samsung Galaxy S4, and I've had 4 phones since then. I never liked the hadware buttons much because of their tendency to malfunction (due to moving parts, I assume). These days my decision is always between software buttons and gestures. I prefer gestures, but I wish Google hadn't killed the ability of app developers to create their own gestures. I used to use Vivid Gestures to emulate Oneplus's gestures on my Pixel, but that doesn't work anymore, so now I'm stuck with stock Android's gestures. It's really only the back gesture I don't like, but considering how often I use it, it's not an insignificant problem. :-\

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