Google first introduced gesture navigation with Android 9 Pie back in 2018, as we detailed in our brief history of Android gestures. This initial solution was definitely half-baked, with Google keeping both the back and home buttons, and only adding gestures for multitasking. One year later, the company did the right thing and completely switched the gesture navigation on Android 10, turning the Home and Back buttons into gestures as well.
While navigating with this system is mostly intuitive, the nod to the back still made itself felt to me, all the while. Home and multitasking gestures are accompanied by beautiful and meaningful animations, as application windows fly in and out of view depending on the movement of your finger on the screen. By contrast, the back gesture only offers limited animation feedback in Android 10 through Android 13, with nothing more than an arrow extending from the edge of the screen reacting to your movements. You have to let go before you know where your next move will take you, which can sometimes take you to the wrong place.
Some iOS inspiration goes a long way
When you compare this to the situation on the iPhone, which arguably pioneered gesture navigation as we use it today on Android, you might notice that Apple handles things more intuitively when it comes to animations. iOS offers pretty much the same multitasking and home gestures as Android, though it lacks a generic wallpaper gesture that always takes you back to the home screen. But the way transitions are handled within individual iOS apps is more intuitive than Android. Many iOS apps allow you to swipe in from the left edge of the screen, which reveals any screen or panel you’ve seen within the same app before.
This approach allows you to peek at the navigation step you’re about to take before you actually proceed with it. This means you can stop if you’re not going where you want to go, making the experience easier and more enjoyable. The system gives you instant feedback based on your finger movements, putting you in control and helping you interact directly with the app at hand. Android lacks that kind of intuition with its gesture wallpaper, with animations tracking only for moving from one app screen to the next after I left the gesture.
Android 14 may give us the best of both worlds
Predictive back gesture within one app
This is why Android 14 got me so excited. The new Android version promises to change that, by offering a more intuitive wallpaper navigation experience, and it just might combine the best of both worlds. In Android 14 Developer Preview 2, the new predictive background animations are available to a few apps, as Google is asking developers to add support for them.
The new gesture lets you know the next step you’re about to take. As you slide your finger across the screen, animations quickly reveal which screen you’re about to go to, accompanied by some satisfying tactile feedback as you swipe the bottom line. You can swipe back and forth between these two screens as you wave your finger across the screen, and decide if you really want to go back to the previous screen before ending the action.
Predictive back gesture across different apps
It’s fair to say that most of the time, you’re probably already aware of where the next gesture will send you, so you might think the new animation is just unnecessary fluff. However, Google’s own research shows that users are sometimes surprised about where the next step will take them. Even if this is something that only happens to you occasionally, it’s still a great addition that can prevent accidental navigating to screens you didn’t intend to visit.
As Google reviewed last year, app developers will also be able to implement their own custom transitions for the new predictive back gesture. The company introduced a Google Calendar beta template, which provided a seamless transition from showing a single event to an agenda overview.
The new back gesture may also help us get rid of a workaround introduced by many third-party developers that predates gesture navigation: When the next back step exits a specific app, it will ask you to confirm the action with an additional tap of the back button or an additional slide across the screen for the back gesture. This was intended to prevent accidental exits, and this temporary solution only exists because of the uncertainty that back-navigation presents.
It may take a while for all apps to use Android 14’s predictive back gestures
As with any brand-new Android feature introduced with a new version of the OS, it’s possible that not all apps will support it from the start — especially since Google requires developers to manually change a flag in their apps to enable the new back navigation. This is intended to ensure that nothing breaks while using the feature, but it may also mean that we will have to wait a while before the system is widely adopted. The same goes for Android 13’s app languages and the optional transparency behind the navigation bar at the bottom, which is something many apps do Still Do not support – including Google’s own applications.
Given how useful the new back gesture is in making phones more intuitive, I can only hope it’s one of those features app developers embrace sooner rather than later. Android 14 Developer Previews and Betas will give them plenty of opportunities to try out the new system with their apps. At the same time, it’s also clear that Google still needs to put a lot of polish into its all-new predictive back gestures. In Developer Preview 2, the system is still incredibly buggy and finicky, either not working or just working for some transitions. At the time of writing, I’ve also found that it only works with Google News and the Settings app, which really isn’t a whole lot of apps.
Still, the potential is clear, and I, for one, can’t wait for Android apps to massively support this intuitive new gesture. If you want to give it a try right now, learn how to install Android 14 Developer Preview on your Pixel phone.
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