The Search Button: They’re Doing It Wrong

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You know what we haven’t had in a while? A good old-fashioned #firstworldproblems rant. So here’s one.

As Q might say, the world of smartphones has always been “wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross” (just making sure you’re awake, Trek fans). That magical quality has grown over the years -in fact, Apple effectively co-opted the term “magical” for a while there- and today our portable devices are capable of incredible feats.

Along the way, we’ve lost some things. Progress inevitably demands that certain features be obsoleted in favor of others. The jog dial, or scroll wheel, is a good example of this: the idea of a side-mounted wheel on a smartphone felt antique years before it finally faded for good. It was time for it to go.

Go to bed, old man.

Not all of these losses have been without cost. The jog dial may have been overdue for retirement, but it was a longtime mainstay of smartphones for good reason: it was a very useful means of controlling a device. The wheel made scrolling through long emails, message threads, or web pages with one hand a cinch. Back then, it was easier to scroll with a jog dial than a touchscreen, and I’d venture to say that, for one-handed use, that still holds true today.

Or it would, if jog dials were included in modern phones. A more modern equivalent, the side-mounted touch-sensitive strip, was introduced on a handful of devices, like the T-Mobile Dash, but it failed to catch on. So we lost a convenient input method to the march of progress.

The same thing is happening today, to the search button.

Not that message-board noobs will notice.

The dedicated hardware-based search button has had an inconsistent upbringing. Never fully embraced by Windows Mobile or Blackberry, it was in rare supply until the release of Android 1.0, which called for four hardware keys on every device: home, menu, back, and search. Pressing the search button launched the user directly into a Google search, a time-saving brand-reinforcer that set the fledgling OS apart from its competitors.

As time went on and Android grew in scale and importance, the focus on mobile search sharpened. Apple brought a version of its handy Spotlight search to the iPhone, though several iterations were required before its utility began to approach parity with its OSX progenitor (and it’s still not quite there). PalmOS devices had long featured a search hard key, albeit one requiring a shift-press, and Palm improved on that functionality in webOS by eliminating the need for a search button at all- later, this feature would be aptly titled “Just Type.” Microsoft adapted to the new landscape quite well with the initial release of Windows Phone, requiring three dedicated keys on every WP7 device, one of which was assigned to search.

All of these divergent solutions to the “search problem” rapidly evolved, stealing from one another to produce a wonderful array of search options. Today, we users enjoy a bevy of choice when it comes to “finding stuff” on our mobile devices.

A hot, steaming pile of choices.

But as quickly as search options flooded in, they’ve fallen under attack by people with dumber newer ideas about the user experience.

In its earlier versions, Android was criticized regularly for all kinds of user-interface shortcomings. I was one of the people doing so, and  make no apologies for it now; for a long time, Android was a pretty ugly OS. It’s why skins like HTC Sense were able to stay relevant and desirable for so long; they covered up Android’s inherent ugliness and patched the gaps in its functionality. When Android 4.0 landed, it brought the OS out of the ugly-duckling phase and showed us the first real glimmers of beauty. It’s still not quite full-blown gorgeous, but it’s at least attractive without the need for a lot of customization.

Unfortunately, Ice Cream Sandwich also brought with it a button redesign. And while I found the addition of the multitasking key a welcome change, the omission of the search button has made me weep for the future.

Like this guy.

The reason: search isn’t just a feature we use when we’re on our home screen. I use search in almost every app on my phone. I use it to find specific messages in Gmail, to look up contacts in Voice, to pinpoint locations in Maps and Foursquare, and about fifty other places. Before Ice Cream Sandwich, this meant I had a hard-wired, muscle-memory path locked in my brain: if I needed to find something, no matter what app I was in, my thumb would tap the magnifying glass in the lower-right corner of my device. It was consistent, predictable, and easy.

Now, the search button is in a different place all the time. Every time I want to find something, I have to scan the screen to determine where the app’s developer has put the little magnifying glass. And this isn’t just with third-party apps, remember: three of the four examples I gave are Google-built applications.

It’s like Where’s Waldo, except it sucks.

When this shift first happened within Android, though, I didn’t notice; I was safely squirreled away in Windows Phone land. At least Microsoft’s WP7 division understood consistency in the user experience. Tapping the search key on my Samsung Focus, no matter what app I was in, instantly brought me to that app’s search function. It was exactly as life had been on my HTC Evo, right down to the location of the button itself.

Well, I guess Microsoft didn’t want Google to get too far ahead in the “getting it wrong” department, because they screwed everything up when Mango dropped.

 

You are just the worst kind of fruit.

Now, post-7.5 upgrade, if you’re in an app like the People hub and you tap the device’s search button, you’re immediately thrown out of the app and thrust into Bing. For search, Windows Phone apps now feature the same built-in magnifying glass buttons as their Android counterparts, haphazardly placed at the whim of the developer.

Presumably, Microsoft implemented this change to build more consistency into the WP7 user experience: “no matter what, pressing this button launches this application.” I get that. Problem is, the application it launches is Bing, so it’s a consistently awful experience. But that’s not really the point; even if the search button launched a Google app, I’d still hate it, because there’s a better way to put that button to use. Psst, Microsoft: It’s the way you were doing it before.

In short, an experience that was previously consistent, convenient, and easy-to-use is now none of these things. In exchange, we’ve been given faster access to a mediocre search solution (in Windows Phone) and we’ve eliminated 25% of the buttons taking up space below our screens (in Android).

It’s not worth the tradeoff. Google, Microsoft: you have the power to stop the madness. Take us back to a search-button paradigm that makes it easier, not harder, to get information from our devices. Bring us back to the UI sanity we’ve been -wait for it- searching for.

Thank you. I’ll be here all week.

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!