Android 14 makes me excited for the future of gesture navigation

Google first introduced gesture navigation with Android 9 Pie back in 2018, as we already detailed in our brief history of Android gestures. This initial solution was decidedly half-baked, with Google retaining both the back and home buttons, and only adding gestures for multitasking. One year later, the company did the right thing and made the full switch to gesture navigation on Android 10, turning the home and back buttons into gestures, too.

While navigating with this system is mostly intuitive, the back gesture has still felt tacked on to me, all this time. The home and multitasking gestures are accompanied by beautiful and meaningful animations, with app windows flying in and out of view depending on the movement of your finger on the screen. In contrast to that, the back gesture only offers limited animation feedback in Android 10 through Android 13, with nothing but an arrow that extends from the edge of the screen reacting to your movements. You have to let go before you know where your next move is going to take you, which can sometimes bring you to the wrong spot.

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 matters a bit more intuitively when it comes to animations. iOS offers pretty much the same multitasking and home gestures as Android, although it does lack a universal back gesture that always takes you all the way back to the home screen. But the way transitions are handled inside individual iOS apps is much more intuitive than on Android. Many iOS apps allow you to swipe from the left edge of the screen, which reveals whatever screen or panel you saw within that same app before.

This approach makes it possible to peek at the navigation step you're about to take before you actually follow through with it. That means you can stop if you’re not headed where you wanted to go, making the experience more intuitive and enjoyable. The system gives you instant feedback based on your fingers' movements, putting you in control and helping you directly interact with the app at hand. Android has lacked this kind of intuition with its back gesture, with the transition animation from one app screen to another only following after you let go of the gesture.

Android 14 might give us the best of both worlds

Predictive back gesture within a single app

That's why Android 14 has me so excited. The new Android version promises to change that, introducing a more intuitive back navigation experience, and it might just combine the best of both worlds. In Android 14 Developer Preview 2, a new, predictive back animation is available for a select few apps, with Google asking developers to add support for it.

The new gesture makes it possible to see which step back you're about to take next. As you slide your finger across the screen, an animation quickly reveals whatever screen you're about to navigate to, accompanied by some satisfying haptic feedback as you move over the threshold. You can slide back and forth between these two screens as you wave your finger across the display, and decide if you really want to return to the previous screen before you finish the action.

Predictive back gesture across different apps

It’s fair to say that most of the time, you’ll probably be aware where that next gesture is going to send you, so you might think the new animation is just unnecessary fluff. However, Google's own research shows that users are at times surprised about where their next move takes them. Even if this is something that only happens to you every once in a while, it's still a great addition that can prevent accidental navigation to screens you didn't intend to visit.

As Google previewed last year, app developers will also be able to implement their own custom transitions for this new predictive back gesture. The company demoed a mockup of Google Calendar, which offered a smooth transition from a single event view to the agenda overview.

The new back gesture might additionally help us get rid of a stopgap solution introduced by many third-party developers that predates gesture navigation: When the next back step will exit a given app, it will ask you to confirm the action with an extra tap on the back button or an extra slide across the screen for the back gesture. This was meant to prevent accidental exits, and this stopgap solution only exists because of the uncertainty that back navigation presents.

It might take some time until all apps use Android 14's predictive back gestures

As with any brand-new Android feature introduced with a new version of the operating system, it's likely that not all apps will support it from the get-go — especially as Google requires developers to manually change a flag in their apps to enable the new back navigation. This is meant to ensure that nothing breaks while using the feature, but it might also mean that we’ll have to wait quite some time before the system is widely adopted. The same is true for Android 13's per-app languages and optional transparency behind the navigation bar at the bottom, which is something many apps still don't support — including Google’s own apps.

Given how beneficial the new back gesture is in making phones more intuitive, I can only hope that it will be one of those features that app developers embrace sooner rather than later. The Android 14 Developer Previews and Betas will give them plenty of opportunities to try 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 the brand new predictive back gestures. In Developer Preview 2, the system is still incredibly buggy and finicky, with it either not kicking in or only working for a few transitions. At the time of writing, I've also only spotted it working with Google News and the settings app, which really isn't a ton of apps.

Still, the potential is clear, and I, for one, can't wait until Android apps broadly support this new intuitive back gesture. If you’d like to give it a try right now, learn how to install the Android 14 Developer Preview on your Pixel phone.

Conclusion on Android 14 makes me excited for the future of gesture navigation

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