First up, Android TV’s interface is not actually that bad. The longer you use it, and the more accustomed you become to the interface, the more it starts to make some sense. At the very least, it becomes more manageable. However, it does seem that many users have a real issue with the Android TV launcher – formerly known as the leanback launcher. One which based on their comments, is probably quite easy for Google to fix.
The issue is not with the launcher itself, but more so the way it is presented, and in particular, the lack of customization. For instance, the Android TV Launcher app on the Google Play Store currently has a 2.8 rating out of 5. For clarity, this is only based on 191 people rating the launcher, which when considering the app has been installed more than 5 million times, is a rather simplistic pool to draw conclusions from. However, if the launcher was amazing, then people would probably be more likely to comment on it. If anything the lack of reviews and comments (compared to installs) is probably symptomatic of how people feel about the launcher. After all, if you have nothing nice to say…
So ignoring the debate on whether 191 comments is enough to warrant generalizations, what does seem to be a recurring aspect in the comments is just how Google-fied the launcher is. That is, how much the launcher is designed to point you in the direction of Google’s own content. Which is certainly true. The launcher does clearly highlight content that it thinks you might be interested in, although that content does often come from Google’s own services. Which may be more of an issue with third-party Android TV app support, than Google favoring its own services. But reasoning aside, the reality is that Google Play Movies & TV content, YouTube content, Google Play Music content, and so on, does always show up on the main screen and much more frequently than other apps. And this seems to be bugging users big time. As many of them simply view the setup as a way for Google to advertise its services and push you to use those services.
So what can Google do to fix this? Or at least, fix the perception of this? Well, Android TV is getting a new redesigned launcher. It comes with Android O and those who are already running the developer preview of Android O on the Nexus Player are already able to access the new launcher. However, while the launcher has been redesigned, it seems unlikely that this is going to fix the issues some have with the launcher. As the new launcher is designed to put even more focus on specific content. Likewise, for an Android TV app to take advantage of this new design, it will need to have the support baked in. Which might not be the case for lesser-supported apps. Which in itself is another criticism that has been raised, with sideloaded apps being a prime example. Android apps that are sideloaded over, do not naturally show up on the Android TV launcher. There are ways around this, but the very fact that they do not show up is being seen as another example of how the content is controlled. Although again, this is likely more of a third-party developer issue – due to those apps not yet being optimized properly for Android TV, but it strikes the same chord with some users. Google is not doing all it can to help those additional apps, with the interface far too highly geared towards big money commercial apps. Most of which are apps that the ‘cord cutting’ generation is trying to get away from.
So it seems the lack of customization, the preference for Google’s own apps, the recommendations feed, the general presentation, all allude to the same fundamental issue – the Android TV launcher is too much of a crowded affair. It is just too busy. While Android O’s version does look to make it less busy, it now runs the risk of becoming busy while also being empty, as only so much content can appear on the screen at any one time. One of the comments on the Android TV launcher page for instance, raises an interesting point “I literally want 5 squares on my home screen.” Presumably not just any old 5 squares (apps) but the 5 apps that the user cares about. Technically speaking, the new interface does bring the number of in-view apps down to about this number, but again preference for those apps will be for apps that come with the necessary support for the new interface. Those apps that don’t come with that support, will end up relegated to the second tier “Apps” page, requiring the user to click through before even seeing the app icon. They have become even further away and that is if they show up at all. Not to mention, that while the new layout reduces the number of apps on the main screen, it increases the presence of those apps, with each app having a number of preview windows. Resulting in less apps, but more screen real estate per app. The problem with this – if the apps showing up are not your most used apps, then while that additional real estate is great news for the app developer(s), it busies the user’s interface even more. It becomes even more cluttered.
So while this is likely to be a highly-individual thing, and something which will likely cause debate, it seems the key for the Android TV launcher to become more popular – is to become more simple. That does not mean reduce the number of apps as the already-noted comment suggests (and what the Android O version seems to be doing), but maybe it means to remove all the apps altogether. Bring the launcher to more of an inbox-zero type of status. In other words, maybe the best version of the Android TV launcher would be a blank slate out of the box. One which requires the user to install the apps and decide which of their installed apps show up on the home screen. After all, if you are someone who only ever uses Netflix on Android TV, then surely all you would want to see on the Android TV launcher is one card, one icon, Netflix. As everything else is just background noise.