Why Are Mobile Share Menus So Bad?

iPhone share menu
Corbin Davenport / How-To Geek

Tablets and smartphones get better every year, but there’s one aspect of Android devices, iPhones, and iPads that is still really bad. We’re talking about share menus.

Share Menus Are Agonizing to Use

Google’s Android operating system and Apple’s iOS (and iPadOS) platform weren’t built around the same centralized file system structure as desktop platforms. Instead of saving files and data in a folder, and then selecting those files in another application, mobile platforms adopted the idea of direct sharing.

You can click or tap a button to instantly send text, URLs, images, videos, or other files from one app to another, instead of using a file directory structure as an intermediary step. That’s generally a good idea, though it may be contributing to some younger people not understanding file systems anymore.

There’s a big problem, though: the actual menus for sharing data are terrible. No matter if you have an iPhone 14 Pro, a low-end Android phone, an iPad Air, or a Galaxy S23, you usually need a lot of scrolling and multiple taps to get the job done. The share system is a critical component of both Android and iOS, and yet, it’s one of the most poorly-designed aspects of both platforms.

Why are share menus so bad? As you might expect, the problem is a mix of platform limitations and poor design, but share menus don’t have to be this terrible. Let’s look at why they’re so painful to use and what could be done to improve them.

The Core Design Is Flawed

First, let’s look at the system share menu on Android phones. The below screenshot is what you see when sharing text with the default share menu on a modern Samsung phone. There are quick buttons for copying to the clipboard and using Nearby Share, then a horizontally-scrolling row of recent contacts and chats, then another horizontally-scrolling row of all your apps.

Android share menu image
Share menu on a Samsung Galaxy S21 with Android 13

This is a terrible experience for one simple reason: it’s not using your screen space properly. I can only see a few apps at a time, because smartphone screens are taller than they are wide, unless you flip them into landscape mode.

A grid layout of icons that takes up the whole screen makes much more sense — and that’s exactly what the system share menu on Google Pixel phones looks like. Samsung used to have a similar grid layout on its phones and tablets, and I don’t know why the company thought the current design was an improvement.

Another problem is that you can’t really customize the row of contacts and groups. The items there are suggested based on the apps you have installed, but the recommendations are rarely helpful — the same goes for the share menu on iPhone. No, I don’t want to share a meme with someone who emailed me four months ago.

And even if I recently interacted with someone, that doesn’t mean I need them on my share menu “speed dial.” The same goes for the inability to exclude broader suggestions. Just because I use Slack all day for work doesn’t mean I want Slack conversations at my fingertips in the share menu.

The share menu on iPhone and iPad is even worse, somehow. The below screenshot, in which I’m sharing a web link, is pretty visually busy. First is the row of recent chats, contacts, and my nearby devices — again, these recommendations usually aren’t helpful.

Then there’s another row of applications, with one of the slots taken up by AirDrop. Those two rows scroll horizontally, not vertically, so you can only see a few options at a time. If you have your iPhone on a more zoomed-in display mode, you’re even worse off here.

Share menu on iPhone
Share menu on an iPhone SE with iOS 16.5

Below all that, there’s a list of actions provided by the application. For example, I’m sharing a post from a Mastodon app, so I have options to open the post in a web browser, copy the link, or copy the contents of the post.

Below that is another list with actions provided by apps on your phone, such as your Shortcuts, searching a link with Google Lens (I have the Google app installed), or quickly creating a note in the Notes app. Those two sections are vertically-scrolling, and you can choose which app actions appear in the list, so I don’t really have any complaints there.

Even after you pick the correct application or contact, you usually have to select additional fields once the desired app is opened. Something as simple as sharing a link can take much longer than it should, depending on the target application. It’s so frustrating that I usually just copy text and images and paste them in the right place manually, rather than navigate through a chain of share actions.

The system share menus on both platforms aren’t great, but there’s another factor at play: custom share menus.

Custom Share Menus Make It Worse

Some applications provide their own share menus that either come before the system menu, or completely replace the system menu with a different interface — the latter option is only possible on Android. This is more common in social media apps, where you might be more likely to send content to another location in the same app, rather than sending it to another application or service.

Custom share sheets aren’t necessarily bad, but they can introduce yet another step in the already-convoluted process. For example, let’s say I want to share a post from the Facebook app to a specific person on Discord.

On my iPhone, I have to tap the Share button on the post, scroll to “more” at the bottom of Facebook’s share menu and tap it, scroll to the Discord icon and tap it, select the contact, and then press Post. Copying the post link from Facebook’s first share menu and then pasting it directly into the other app is somehow faster, even though the share menu is supposed to be the most direct process for mobile apps.

Custom share menus on iPhone
Share menus in YouTube, Adobe Lightroom, and Facebook

Every step in the process feels like a dark pattern, and in some cases, it might be intentional. For example, Facebook’s initial share menu encourages you to stay in Facebook’s ecosystem of services: all the options at the top are for Facebook or Facebook Messenger. Again, some of these custom share sheets are perfectly fine, and they give app developers more flexibility than the system share sheet on iOS or Android. I wish they didn’t add even more steps to the process, though.

Beyond extra menus and popups, there’s also the problem that some apps add tracking parameters to the end of links, which look ugly and can potentially reduce the privacy of everyone involved. For example, if you share a video from the YouTube mobile app, it adds “&feature=share” to the end of the link. That way, when someone uses that link, it tells YouTube the view came from someone sharing the link.

That’s not too malicious, but other apps take that to the extreme with long and more detailed tracking parameters. The problem is so bad that I created the Link Cleaner web app to quickly remove those parameters on mobile devices — but that’s yet another step in the process.

How Do We Fix The Mess?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple solution to “share menus bad” problem. Part of the blame is on Apple, Google, Samsung, and other companies involved in how the core share system behaves on mobile platforms. Custom share menus can sometimes add more steps to the process, but they are generally only bad if the app developer is designing them poorly. Some apps also go overboard on the tracking parameters when sharing links. So, what can be done to fix all of this, if anything?

Apple’s solution, at least for the moment, is allowing apps to customize the system share sheet with additional buttons and actions. That way, instead of having app-specific actions on the first share menu and requiring another tap to see the system share menu, everything can be on one screen. There are still plenty of iPhone apps that show their own custom menu first, like YouTube and Facebook, but the tools are there.

Google is working on updating the share sheet in Android to function as a modular component, possibly starting with Android 14. That could lead to more improvements, such as an Apple-like approach of a share menu with customizable elements, but we haven’t seen much indication of that yet. For the foreseeable future, many apps — including several of Google’s own services — will continue using fully-custom share sheets.

There’s more work that needs to be done here, ideally with platform creators working directly with app developers to create better experiences. Personally, I would like to see Apple move away from multiple horizontally-scrolling lists in the system share menu, or make it more customizable so I can hide the apps and options I never use. Even if some apps want to continue using poorly-designed menus, Apple and Google could lead by example.

Leave a Comment