Android Q's back gesture breaks a fundamental app interaction: the slide-in drawer

Android Q's new gesture navigation system is a clear upgrade over what Google tried with Android 9 Pie. Multitasking is easier, and each of the core gestures is easier to use with more fluidity. But one core part of the navigation paradigm that's still up in the air is the new back gesture.

We've seen several phone makers create their own back gestures, but not in the way Google is standardizing on with Android Q: swipe in from the edge of the screen, on either the left or right, at any time to perform the same action previously handled by the back button. This difference from the rest of the back gestures on other Android phones is extremely important because it interferes with one of the most fundamental in-app navigation systems used today: the slide-in drawer.

The slide-in drawer has been a fundamental app interface component for a decade.

The hidden slide-in drawer has been a fundamental app navigation mechanism for nearly a decade, and it's propagated beyond Android to just about every other platform in some way. Apps that don't use a slide-in drawer are few and far between, and many (including some of Google's own) rely on it as their primary system for moving through sections of the app. Even those that surface most-used functions to a bottom navigation bar still use the slide-in drawer as a dumping ground for further options.

(The only category of apps that doesn't regularly use a slide-in drawer are games, which have their own struggles with edge-based gestures.)

Using Android Q with gesture nav, every single app will lose its slide-in drawer until the developer updates.

When you're using Android Q with gesture navigation enabled, every single one of those apps loses its slide-in drawer. You simply cannot swipe in from the edge, at any place or in any way, to reveal it. The only way to show the drawer will be to tap whatever button is associated with it — typically a hamburger menu button in the top corner, which is increasingly tough to reach on large (and tall) phones. That's a massive pain that requires a change in muscle memory at the very least and dramatically reduces the speed at which you can navigate apps.

Google knows that the back gesture is going to create headaches for everyone who has come to rely on the slide-in drawer (among other near-edge taps and swipes), and is making it very clear to developers that they need to plan for this change:

If the user swipes in from the edge of the screen, the system interprets that gesture as a Back navigation, unless an app specifically overrides that gesture for portions of the screen. To make your app compatible with gestural navigation, you'll want to extend the app content from edge to edge, and handle conflicting gestures appropriately.

Android developer documentation lays out the process by which developers can define areas of their apps that are excluded from the back gesture, and will instead perform other actions — whether that's to pull in a slide-in drawer, or simply have guaranteed touch input all the way to the edge for some other interaction. As an example, Google has already updated the Play Store app to completely remove the back gesture on the entire left side, leaving it for the slide-in drawer only.

Gesture exclusion areas will be different for each app — if they have them at all.

That's all fine and good, but it requires that developers actually do what Google is asking. And even if we take that as a given (which we obviously can't), and every app with a slide-in drawer magically has an exclusion area overnight, there are still big usability hurdles. Gesture exclusion areas only work if you can count on them being there — not knowing where that area is, which side it's on, how large it is, and having it be different for each and every app on your phone introduces a new set of issues altogether. It's going to be a very, very frustrating transition.

Unfortunately for us, developers don't have that much incentive to create these exclusion areas. The new gestures are mandatory to include on new phones shipping with Android Q, but they don't have to be the default nor the exclusive navigation choice. It's a pretty safe bet that most companies that already make their own gesture navigation systems, or stick with three-button navigation, will continue doing so with Android Q — and for this vast majority of phones out there, developers won't hear any complaints.

This is one of those situations where we can actually take the slow rollout of Android updates as a positive thing because developers as a whole are not going to have their apps up to date with considerations for the new Android Q back gestures for some time to come. And in the case of anyone who updates their non-Pixel phone to Android Q, it gives even more weight to the decision between enabling the new gestures and sticking with the other available system(s) — the Android Q gestures may be great and intuitive, but are they worth losing slide-in drawers in most apps you use every day? I don't think anyone would say they are.

Android Q: Everything you need to know!

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

40 Comments
  • So far OnePlus gestures have worked the best for me. Currently using an S10 and the gestures are good but OnePlus gestures are easy and intuitive whether your right handed or left handed.
  • Seems to be a common refrain. People like the OnePlus approach.
  • Alternative interpretation: OnePlus fans are more committed to the brand and more likely to approve of whatever OnePlus puts out there, and are more vocal than the average Android user.
  • Why is the Samsung approach not good for both left-handed and right-handed people? You can readily switch the order of the back/recents if preferred.
  • On OP you never need to reach all the way across the bottom of the phone. Both sides of the bottom are back and the middle is both home and recents/last app. With Samsung you still have a feature that is across from where your thumb is, whether it's for back or recents/last app. I've used both and OP allowed for much easier usage with either hand, on top of being left/right agnostic. Liked it so much so that I duplicated it on my 3a XL with XDA nav gestures, except for last app which is not possible to duplicate yet.
  • I like elements from both approaches. I don't like how the recents gesture takes longer to register than a simple swipe for OnePlus. It's a marginal yet noticeable difference. Even going home has a little animation which annoys me ever so slightly. I prefer simply having gestures where the navigation buttons previously existed. It seems simple and intuitive. For Samsung, I don't like how the recents takes time and rolls back to the last used app. It's weird. Also for OnePlus, I dislike how the app switcher on Pie only shows a single application. To fix everything I didn't like and add more customization, I'm using Xposed Edge on my OnePlus 7 Pro. I disabled OnePlus Launcher, and I guess I get the traditional vertical recents that fits in three applications. The animation delay is gone, and the whole set-up is much faster. I set the bottom edges to essentially the same as what I use on the Note 9 with the bottom-left as back button and bottom-right as recents. Middle for home. I also found that opening multi-window takes way too many button clicks, so I have long press on the right set to multi-window. Long press on left set to menu button though it isn't strictly necessary. I also added swiping left or right on the right edge to switch to the last app. I missed that old functionality to quickly go to the last app with the navigation bar. For landscape, it seems just the back (both and left and right) are active from OnePlus gestures. I left that as-is since it hasn't caused any problem. Other OnePlus gestures seem disabled when the launcher is frozen. The Xposed Edge gestures switch to the side when using landscape, so I can go back three different ways. OnePlus gestures always stick to the bottom edge and don't flip. I see the merits of both. I should probably also say that I have owned every single OnePlus handset since the OnePlus 2. I upgrade every generation.
  • Love the Huawei gestures with the same swipe in from left or right side for back as Google but it's practically useless with a case on unless... you have a curved edge display then all is good.
  • When is AC app going to be updated?
  • If you swipe from the left at an angle the slide in drawer will open. Sliding in straight/flat activates the back gesture. That's how it is working on my Pixel 3 anyway. I have noticed that pop-up notifications momentarily disable the back gesture.
  • That was the case on the Beta 3, but no longer in Beta 4 for me.
  • The diagonal swipe is working for me with Beta 4 on Pixel 3a XL.
  • Yeah I'm not getting it to work consistently anymore. This also isn't something Google ever said was officially part of the gesture system, so I question its staying power. Google's official stance on the gesture is that if you want a slide-in drawer, you need to use exclusion zones in your app.
  • I'm on Beta 4. Still works for me. Except for something like the Play Store where swiping from the left ONLY opens the drawer and I have to swipe from the right to exit.
  • This seems to happen with most Google apps now. I wish we could have a lower part of the edge to go back, and the rest to open the sidebar. We are used to the back button being at the bottom, so it wouldn't be much of a change to muscle memory.
  • I'm on Beta 4 on an OG Pixel XL and the diagonal swipe is working for me on most apps, especially if I hold my finger at the edge for a fraction of a second before I swipe diagonally.
  • Who really cares that much about the slide-in drawer I know I sure don't even though I know it's there I have never really remember to use I always hit the 3 lines, so this isn't breaking anything for me.
  • I guess people don't know how to do a little research or even just test out the features before saying they're broken.
  • "it doesn't affect me, so obviously it shouldn't affect anyone else." i bet a lot of people that want to be able to control a large phone with one hand will have problems. Assuming they don't have giant hands, I guess. I didn't even realize I was using slide-in drawers until after this article. Originally I was going to agree with you that its not a common feature, but I then thought about it and realized I had been using it in apps without giving it a second though, because they were just intuitive.
  • I have giant hands and it still bothers me. On the one hand, it's nice to have universal gestures. On the other hand, I'm used to sliding in panels for both Samsung edge applets and my launcher.
    That said developers, if they choose to implement exclusion zones, could do what Samsung does with their edge applets and have a small semi-transparent white line where the exclusion zone lives.
  • This would be the ideal time to add a gesture for One Handed Mode. While they're at it they could maybe even add One Handed Mode too
  • The most annoying thing about this is that there will be no continuity at all from app to app, even among Google's apps. Let's say I get into the muscle memory of sliding from the left to go back. Except, while using the Google play store, I'm going to have to swipe from somewhere else to go back. This means for every single app, I'm going to have to memorize how to go back, which will discourage me from using apps. Why, oh why Google did you not make the swipe from the bottom of the screen, like OnePlus does? It just works, plain and simple.
  • Yeah I think that's the biggest issue. Even when apps are all updated to take into account the back gesture, the action is going to be different between each app.
  • Simple fix - make the back gesture a diagonal swipe down from the edge instead. I've been using that gesture for YEARS on my android devices for the back function via GMD Gesture Controls app (a root app) without any interference with any other apps that use slide in gestures.
  • This isn't final release. Perhaps there will be another approach before final stable release.
  • Everything was so simple with Blackberry10.. That's what I call the perfect gesture navigation!
  • Agreed. Apple fans didn't understand it because there wasn't a "home" button, so it got branded as unintuitive
  • A back button solves this problem.
  • That's why the original Pixel gestures are my favorite gestures right now. I don't care at all about a few milimeters space at the bottom of my screen, where I'm not looking ever. I like them because they feel faster to me than 3 button nav, and still give visual feedback.
  • "We've seen several phone makers create their own back gestures, but not in the way Google is standardizing on with Android Q" X Doubt.
    See Samsung's "One Hand Operation+" app on the Play Store. As far as I know, Samsung is a phone maker.
  • I think this article is making a much bigger deal about this than needed. Just tap the hamburger button and you're good to go. Is it hard to reach on larger sized phones? Yes. But most apps have important UI elements on the top anyway (search bar, filter button etc). The new gesture navigation might make developers move the whole thing to the bottom.
  • So they come up with a new gesture that breaks all existing apps that the developers then update to restore the existing functionality, blocking the new gesture. So what exactly was the reason for introducing it the first place then? Totally bonkers decision by Google.
  • Not broken. All you have to do is EASILY swipe on the other side of the screen and the arrow takes you back. I do it so naturally when I come across an app that has that feature it doesn't even phase me. THIS OPTION AUTOMATICALLY WORKS ON "EVERY" HAMBURGER SLIDE OUT APP. Not a big deal. 🤷‍♂️
  • Bring back the Auto Hiding Navigation Bar!
    1. Swipe Up from the Bottom of the Phone to bring the Navigation Bar Up.
    2. Press the; Back, Home, or Recents for the Action You Want.
    Done!
    With Swipe Navigation, there's a Lot of Accidental Actions going on.
    Also, the Auto Hiding Navigation Bar buttons can be switched from; Recents/Home/Back to Back/Home/Recents depending on how you like them to be.
  • I got an easy fix. Only allow the back swipe in from the right side of the phone. Most slide in menus are on the left. Problem solved.
  • I kinda feel like these gesture based navigations that aren't very discoverable and have no on-screen UI should be reserved for OS-level things anyway. The app should have a hamburger button or whatever to allow you to open the menu "drawer." Apps having entire screens hidden behind edge-swiping with no indication that there's something you're not seeing is a bad pattern.
  • I'm in the same camp. This article is the first time I've heard about these drawers and I've been using android for years. I had no idea you could pull them out with a swipe; I've always just hit the overflow button
  • As I've said before.. the back "button" wasn't broke.. .so don't try to fix it!
  • This assumes we even swipe. I just tap the hamburger so no skin off my back
  • They can do whatever they want with the gestures as long as they keep the buttons.
  • Just picked up a 3XL today and installed Android Q Beta. The whole gesture system is IDENTICAL to Huawei's even down to the arrow animations when you swipe back from the sides. I never had any issues with Google app function on the Mate 20 Pro and I still don't see any issue. I hope this is the final design for them with maybe the animations getting fixed a little