Google first introduced gesture navigation with Android 9 Pie in 2018, as detailed in a brief history of Android gestures. The original solution was clearly a failure: Google kept the back and home buttons and only added multitasking gestures. A year later, the company did the right thing and switched completely to gesture navigation in Android 10, even turning the Home and Back buttons into gestures.
While this system was intuitive to navigate for the most part, I felt like I was tethered by the back pulse the entire time. Home gestures and multitasking are accompanied by beautiful and meaningful animations, and app windows appear and disappear as your finger moves across the screen. In contrast, the back gesture offers limited animation expression in Android 10 - Android 13 and only an arrow that extends from the edge of the screen and responds to your movements. You have to leave before you know where your next steps will take you, and that sometimes leads you to the wrong place.
If you compare this to the situation on the iPhone, which probably pioneered the gestural navigation we use on Android today, you can see that Apple is a bit more intuitive when it comes to animations. iOS offers nearly the same multitasking and home gestures as Android, though it lacks the universal back gesture that always takes you back to the home screen. But the way transitions are handled in individual iOS apps is much more intuitive than on Android. Many iOS apps let you swipe from the left edge of the screen, which brings up screens or panels you've seen before in the same app.
This view allows you to preview the navigation step you need to perform before executing it. This means you can stop if you're not going where you want, making for a more intuitive and enjoyable experience. The system gives you instant feedback based on your finger movements, putting you in control and helping you interact directly with the application at hand. Android lacks this insight with the back gesture, with the animation of switching between app screens after releasing the gesture.
Android 14 can give us the best of both worlds
Gesture predictive backwards in a program
That's why I'm so excited about Android 14. The new version of Android promises to change that by introducing more intuitive navigation, and it might just combine the best of both worlds. In Android 14 Developer Preview 2, the new preview feedback animation is available for some apps, and Google is asking developers to add support for it.
The new gesture lets you see how far you need to go. As you swipe across the screen, animations quickly indicate which screen you're about to enter, along with satisfying tactile feedback as you cross the threshold. You can go back and forth between these two screens by swiping the screen and decide if you really want to go back to the previous screen before performing the action.
Back gesture prediction in different apps
It's fair to say that most of the time you probably know where your next move will take you, so you might think that the new animation is just useless. However, Google research shows that sometimes users wonder where their next move will take them. Even if it only happens to you once in a while, it's a great addition that can prevent you from accidentally accessing screens you don't want to visit.
As Google predicted last year, app developers will also be able to set their own transitions for this new backward predictive gesture. The company showed off a Google Calendar design that offered a smooth transition from viewing a single event to a calendar preview.
The new back gesture can help us remove the buggy solution provided by many third-party developers before gesture navigation: when exiting the next back swipe from a particular app, you will be asked to confirm the action with another press. A back button or an extra tap on the screen for the back gesture. This was intended to prevent unexpected exits, and this workaround only exists due to the uncertainty created by reverse navigation.
It may take some time for all apps to use predictive gestures in Android 14
As with any new Android feature introduced with a new OS release, not all apps are likely to support it out of the box, mainly because Google requires developers to manually change a flag in their apps to enable the new background browsing. This is to make sure nothing breaks when using this feature, but it could also mean that we'll have to wait a while for it to become available system-wide. The same goes for Android 13's app languages and the added transparency behind the bottom navigation bar, which many apps still don't support, including apps from Google.
Given how useful the new back gesture is for making phones more intuitive, I hope it's one of those features that app developers adopt as soon as possible. The Android 14 developer preview and beta will give them plenty of opportunities to test the new system with their apps. At the same time, it's clear that Google still has a lot of work to do with the new preview gestures. In Developer Preview 2, the system is still very bare and clunky, it doesn't work or only works in certain transitions. As I was writing this, I also realized that it only works with Google News and the Settings app, of which there aren't many.
Still, the potential is clear, and I can't wait for Android apps to implement this new intuitive wallpaper gesture. If you want to give it a try now, learn how to install Android 14 Developer Preview on your Pixel phone.