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Dear Android App Developers, Can We Quit With the Menu Button Already and Adopt an Action Overflow?

You see that massive, ugly black bar across the bottom of my HTC One X? Yeah, that would be the menu button that Android app developers refuse to move away from even though the Android team announced back in January that the death of the menu button was happening.

What they were hoping to accomplish with this move was a more consistent experience on Ice Cream Sandwich devices because going forward, Android was moving away from dedicated hardware menu buttons. Instead of coding your app to use a dedicated hardware menu button, they recommended that you take advantage of the action overflow capabilities in Android 4.0, which is essentially a menu button that is added to the app rather than one that is tied to a navigation button. If you do not code your app to use action overflow and instead tie it to a navigation button, you get the experience I have captured above if no menu button exists. 

Here are a few examples of apps still using the menu button, one being a Google app. And these aren’t all of them either, Foursquare, Hootsuite, ESPN Scorecenter, Sonos, Amazon MP3, Huffington Post, LinkedIn, and so on all continue to use a dedicated menu button with their apps. The list is enormous, and as you can tell, we aren’t talking about some tiny one-man operation here. These are the big boys that are failing to follow Android guidelines.

  

How should it work and why this move? Well, Google got half way there in their Reader app. As you can see from the screenie below and above left, the top right corner includes a 3-dotted button that is the action overflow area. When pressed, you get additional options that you would normally find when pressing a menu button. It makes sense to use this approach since ICS was built for multiple screens, some of which do not have hardware navigation buttons at all. If you code your app to use action overflow and it is tablet and phone compatible, you get the same experience on both. If you code it to use a menu button, depending on the phone and tablet that a person has, you may have two totally different experiences, which could be confusing to your users.

The reason I bring this up today is because we are seeing more and more phones launch without dedicated hardware menu buttons. The entire HTC One series along with the Incredible 4G LTE and EVO 4G LTE all do not have dedicated menu buttons and will have to experience the evil black bar. It’s time that developers recognize this. Unfortunately, these companies all likely test their apps on a Galaxy Nexus which has the ability to add a menu button to the on-screen navigation area, so they probably think that nothing is wrong.

The end of this issue is no where near completion, but you may want to start asking your favorite app devs to code their apps correctly. As devices continue to launch without dedicated menu buttons, you will soon understand the pain that some of us are experiencing on a daily basis.

  • Spike

    This post will probably offend the hardcore fans….BUT; This is another example of how Android is continuing to fail the AVERAGE user (not the tech geeks like us).

    As a user, I always knew that if a menu or settings exited in an app, all I had to do was hit the “menu” button. While not every app used it or well, it was one of the things you could count on…if it exists, the menu button will bring it up. The move towards a software menu button will only complicate things for average user.
    1. Developers won’t use it consistently and if they do use it, it will end up all over the device. Google has never been good about holding apps accountable to design specs.
    2. The small icon and inconsistent placement mean that it is hard to locate, unlike the simple button at the bottom of the phone…which was easy.
    4. The new action bar takes up screen space…even if it “disappears”.
    3. The “official” placement is NOT convenient for tablet users, or people that are used to working with one hand. Take the time to watch how 7-10 inch tablet users hold their devices…landscape with BOTH hands. Having the buttons (any buttons) in the center, or at the top of the screen means you have to readjust.
    My question is (and I haven’t gotten a good answer yet)…was this decision really based on improving the user experience (I don’t think so), or based on phone costs and making things easier for themselves and developers? So far, doesn’t sound good for developers. Google, ignore the user experience at your peril!!
    Consumers (again, average users, not technophiles)keep saying over and over (through surveys, forums, etc) that they NEED consistency they can count on (between all apps and functions) for it to be SIMPLE, and for it to work and be functional right out of the box. #1 stated reasons people abandon Android for iPhones. “easier to use”, ” I don’t have to manage my phone”, everything works the same way, I can find what I need”. Don’t kid yourselves…the only reason Android is as popular as it is, and sells well is because manufacturers have flooded the market with it. But if you take a realistic look at the numbers, you see that sales are flattening and large numbers abandon the platform within a year.

    Interesting to note…Hardcore Android fans are quick to dismiss Microsoft and Windows 7 or 8, but user ergonomics (how you hold a device, what is easiest and most comfortable, what is the most consistent) is precisely what they have studied and are developing W8 for.

    To my mind…Google and Android are constantly handicapping themselves, working in a “piecemeal” fashion. As a friend described it…”Like a bunch of teenagers with Attention Deficit Disorder”. I was a fan at one time, but after spending so much time struggling with issues ….sorry to say they are losing me.

    Thanks for reading. I’m sure many disagree but that’s what makes life interesting. Peace and health to all.

  • test

    It clearly has to do with the fact that the majority of devices out there are 2.3 or older, and even new devices (San Diego) are still coming out with 2.3. Since they want their software to be on more devices they will target the largest audience, and abandoning them would be suicide at this point.

  • taglogical

    Um? Down with on-screen buttons!! Like OLED screen techs, this is another idea that needs to just go away imo.

    I don’t need more steps between me and core functions. There is absolutely no “real”estate gained… there is TONS of bezel on the Gnex to put capacitive buttons while keeping the same 4.65″ screen… except that you would actually get the 4.65″ screen instead of only 4.5″ due to the fly-out core functions taking up screen ; )

  • DanWazz

    That black bar is horrid. I agree they need to stop with the menu button and integrate the action overflow, if only to standardize where it will be put. It annoys me when it jumps around the screen on different apps. The same thing happens on iOS, and it’s cheesy.

  • zarthan

    One problem with the softkeys within an app is that they are generally located at the top of the app rather than the bottom. With large screen phones it becomes a real stretch. I have large hands and the menu button in the top right is a long reach for one handed (left hand) operation. Regardless of whether there are hard buttons or not, having multiple locations for a button should be consistent.
    This won’t be resolved for another few years. Since the vast majority of phones have hard buttons and even fewer have ICS there isn’t going to be a most appropriate way to deal with the issue.

  • http://twitter.com/BriCo84 Brian Cohen

    Nobody seems to be seeing this from a developer’s perspective…so here’s my 2 cents. First, yes, I agree, if you are a giant conglomerate you should probably be able to go through the effort of giving all your ICS users a good experience with the actionbar. That being said…..it is a lot of extra work to add the action bar to your application. Essentially as soon as you do that, your application can only be run on devices with ICS. Anyone who is not running ICS will not be able to use those screens in your application. So if you want to reach the 94% of users NOT on ICS and you still want to give your ICS users a good experience then you need to create separate activities, essentially copies, that handle things with the menu button instead of ICS. You then have to build in a number of checks to say well what kind of phone does this user have, if its ICS they get the actionBar activity, otherwise they get the menu items.

    That is a lot of extra work to maintain essentially 2 separate applications inside of one. Google screwed up on this. They want the developers to do all this extra work for something that nobody ever thought was a problem (the menu system was fine without the actionbar to begin with), then they screwed up by only having one device out running their latest OS.

    So to recap….Google wants developers to maintain 2 apps in one, to handle the 6% of users running their latest OS as opposed to just giving everyone menus and maintaining one app. I love you google, but you screwed this one up. It is a nightmare on developers.

  • http://twitter.com/figmentmnj Tim B.

    The Menu button is useful IMHO, and non intrusive in most apps if you have softkeys to begin with. The reason it looks stupid on the One X and probably the GSIII is because it only has 3 capacitive buttons. I for one would be annoyed having 3 capacitive buttons in easy reach on the bottom and then having the 4th button all the way on top….

  • r0lct

    I think people are riding the devs too hard. It takes time/money to redo the app for this change, no matter how small someone might think it is. Why are they going to rush to support a change that isn’t even on 10% of the phones yet? In a perfect world everyone would be proactive, but in the real world there are costs associated with change and I’m sure they want to feel these changes are reaching a sizable portion of their user base.

  • http://twitter.com/SoWhy SoWhy

    Well, with Samsung insisting to include a dedicated menu-button on the Galaxy S3, I doubt there is much incentive to move away from it…

  • Quiem

    Point is that ICS is only on 4-5% of market. 2.3 is dominant and menu key there exists so they have menu in their apps. As app developer i did made action bar and overflow even on 2.1 devices but tide it to menu key so when user press it for the first time it jumps out so he knows he can press it with his finger next time.

  • Dave

    I think there wouldn’t be as much resistance to change if Android had action bars with an overflow menu from the very beginning. Some people have become set in their ways now and think these changes won’t benefit them even though they haven’t tried it (or have tried it but quickly dismiss it’s functionality and purpose).

    Given that not all apps use the menu key, it certainly makes sense to me to keep it as a overflow button on an action bar in lieu of a dedicated menu button on your navigation controls. It makes you more aware that there are more options within the context of an app as opposed to the dedicated menu button where there was no indication of whether or not the app has more options for you to view.

    I also agree that this really wouldn’t be much of an issue if manufacturers adopt the soft keys. HTC was going in the right direction but for whatever reason opted to keep dedicated “hard” keys. Don’t even get me started on Samsung’s GSIII…come on, really?

    The navigation bar as present on the Galaxy Nexus only takes up space as necessary on the screen and “hides or minimizes” when it matters most. So I don’t completely understand this argument that it “it’ll take always take up space on the screen”. I too was hesitant about having soft keys when I got the Nexus but I quickly embraced it once I realized it’s potential. It’s definitely forward thinking and I can’t wait to see what UI improvements future Android builds will bring to the table.

  • Menu Key

    Windows should ditch the start bar, it takes up to much screen. Nottttt

  • Menu Key

    Am I the only one that agrees that the menu key is as essential as any other key and should be kept as a softkey in all situations.

    You have home – important, recent apps (windows) – useless to me and back important.

    If anything they should get rid of the windows button and instead make it a home long press. Menu is essential to any app with features, and I would rather make ti easy by adding a dedicated key than trying to press the top right and accidentally interacting with the app.

    I added the menu key to my AOKP immediately and will continue to do that for the life of android, it is equally as important as home and back

    • Dave

      Reading through a lot of these comments it appears you’re not alone although I’m certainly not one of them.

      To me at least, the recent apps button makes sense in keeping things visible to the user without having to figure out it’s existence. Same thing with the menu button. If an app does not require a menu, then the UI should reflect that in some way. With the action bar, it accomplishes that goal. You shouldn’t have to check (i.e. press the menu button) on every app to see if there are more options. You should immediately know it by looking at the screen.