Early on, Android usability was a bit of a mess. Apps had inconsistent designs, which led to inconsistent user experiences. Simple things like the placement of tabs varied from app to app, causing users to constantly have to relearn how apps were organized at a fundamental level. Fortunately, Google became very serious about both the design and the user experience of Android and first starting making drastic changes in Honeycomb, which were further improved for Ice Cream Sandwich and then Jelly Bean. There is no doubt that Matias Duarte and the entire Android team have taken Android to a new level of usability and beauty, but there is still a lot of work to go. This post focuses on the new camera app.

Screenshot of the Android 4.2 camera app

Android 4.2 camera app

I feel that the camera app in Android 4.2 (the second iteration of Jelly Bean) has taken a misstep. The design has a nice simplicity to it but the usability is poor. You hold down anywhere in the preview portion of the app to get a circular menu that is half covered by your thumb. You can’t lift your thumb to see what items it is blocking because the menu will go away. Your best option is to press the circle in the corner of the app to bring up the menu and then make your choices. Unfortunately, many users won’t know what some of these options are. Yes, the icons are standardized and any photographer will recognize them, but a user shouldn’t have to learn what the exposure value icon is or what it means. The white balance options are slightly better because you see icons that represent the applicable lighting (e.g., a traditional light bulb for incandescent lighting), but it could still be improved.

If you change the camera to video mode, the EV option disappears from the menu but it’s otherwise the same. Except, it’s not. Tapping the screen when not recording a video now does nothing (it focuses in photo mode). Tapping the screen while recording a video does not focus but instead takes a photo. The user is left with mode-specific actions that have no UI to indicate what they are.

With some minor work this could be a much better user experience:

  • Tapping the screen should take a picture or start the video (stopping the video should be limited to a specific stop icon since you can always trim it later). This is the most common action, so it should be the easiest to perform. Requiring the user to press a button that’s half an inch from the home button gives a terrible user experience when trying to take a photo without viewing the screen (e.g., taking a self-portrait with the back lens).
  • Long-pressing the screen should focus on the pressed position regardless of the camera app’s current mode.
  • Rotation should not stop and restart the app. Just the icons/labels should rotate where necessary.
  • Zooming should be accomplished with a slider. Pinching to zoom is imprecise, difficult to do quickly, and a two-handed operation.
  • Get rid of the circular menu. This type of menu can work if the options are only above the thumb or to the opposite side, but there is no reason to use it. The main purpose of a menu of this type is to allow people to learn to make adjustments extremely quickly, but how often are you tweaking the white balance of your photos?  The setting you are most likely to use with some frequency is switching between the front-facing camera and the rear-facing camera, but this can be a simple toggle.  Further, sliding quickly toward an option can be interpreted as a swipe sometimes (which leads to the most recent photo).
  • Use icons that don’t require photography experience or at least include labels.
  • White balance should be controlled with a slider that represents the color temperature. Icons can be placed in the appropriate position along the slider to be easily tapped or used as reference. Using a slider lets precise photographers adjust the color balance in 100k increments and allows amateurs and experimental photographers to manipulate the color of the photo easily when desired.

I will say that the user experience for photo spheres is excellent. Creating a photo-stitching UI that is so easy my mom can pick it up without instruction is an impressive accomplishment and whoever designed this experience deserves serious kudos.