My Android 4.4 wishlist (part 2): Address the back button.

When I first switched to Android, I loved the back button. I thought it was highly intuitive, and one the strengths of the system. But over time I’ve done a complete 180. My reason is simple: I can never tell with 100% accuracy what pressing that button will do. Increasingly, that 1 in 20 time when I get taken somewhere unexpected really pisses me off.

The recent introduction of the hamburger button for sliding navigation menus has made things a little better in this regard, but I feel there’s still a long way to go.

Some particular beefs I have with the back button are:
1). I can’t tell at a glance whether pressing that button will dismiss some UI of the current app, take back up the app’s screen stack, kick me out of the current app or possibly something else entirely.
2). The back button requires that users keep a mental stack in their heads. The main time this causes issue for me is when I put the device down and pick it up again later - it can be tough to recall what I was up to previously, and in those cases I don’t know what pressing the button will do.
3). Since the Up button was introduced in Android 3.0, there are now two buttons that take you back. Sometimes they go to the same place, sometimes they don’t. I personally question whether a muggle can ever fully reconcile with having two buttons that take you back, but in subtly different ways.
4). The very first time the back button is displayed to a user on the default system launcher, the button is clickable, but doing so results in no action. That’s right - the very first impression of this button teaches the user they have to make a mental note that 'pressing that does nothing here'. Right from the start, users have to start making special case rules for what the back button does depending on where they are in the system. This is bad.
5). 3rd party apps have no control over the appearance or visibility of the back button. 

I think the software navigation keys introduced in Android 3.0 provide a good opportunity to fix at least some of the underlying issues with the back button. Certainly points 1, 3, 4 and 5 could be addressed to varying degrees by modifying the appearance of the back button at runtime.

Possible solutions here:
1). Add new APIs so that apps can give a hint to the system as to whether they will handle a back button press in a custom way or not. Once these APIs are in place, the appearance of the back button can be modified to give users a hint as to what pressing it will do. 
2). Change the appearance of the back button somehow based on whether pressing back will take you out of the current app or not.
3). If pressing Up and Back will take you to the same place, change the appearance of the back button to match the Up button’s < appearance.
4). Allow certain apps to hide the back button (even if this is limited to launchers set as the default). When pressing a button has no function, it shouldn’t be displayed.
5). Beg, plead and offer the kingdom to Samsung to get them to ditch their Android 2.x hardware navigation keys and embrace the software navigation buttons. Once Samsung change, most OEMs will likely follow suit. 

Given the paltry number percentage of the billion+ Android devices that use software navigation keys, it’s likely too late to fix the problem for the majority of these devices. Arguably it’s too late for most of the next 200+ million devices to be sold also. But there may still be hope to improve the situation for the billion+ devices after that. 
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