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Seven Tips for Proper Navigation in Android Apps

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By following just a few simple principles, says Jason Ostrander, author of Android UI Fundamentals: Develop & Design, Android developers can minimize user frustration with navigation in their apps.
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Android development has exploded in recent years, making Android the largest smartphone OS by market share. As its user base increases, so do the number and quality of apps in the Google Play store. However, one area where developers still seem to struggle is with Android's navigation model. Many apps fail to handle the nuances of activities and tasks properly, forcing users to endure endless back pressing to exit an app. To address this issue, this article presents seven tips for proper implementation of navigation in your Android app.

Learn from the Android Documentation

For many years, the Android documentation on navigation has been lacking. Luckily, Google has recently addressed this problem, and now there are many resources explaining how to navigate an Android app. In particular, the design guidelines and navigation training article provide clear case studies, working through the high-level application use case and following through with individual screens and the actions of the back and up buttons. You should read both of these resources and think carefully about your own application and how you expect people to use it. In addition, you should understand the basics of tasks and the back stack to leverage Android effectively.

Learn the Difference Between Up and Back

Android version 3.0 introduced a standardized navigation element called the ActionBar. This bar sits at the top of the screen and contains common actions and navigation elements, such as tabs. It also includes an icon on the left side that can be used as an up button (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 The up button as displayed in the Google Play app.

It's important to understand the differences between the up and the back button. First, the up button is only relevant within your app. It will never take the user to a different application. In addition, the concept of up means that the user will return to a "logical" parent of the current activity. In the Gmail app, for example, pressing the up button while viewing an email message would take you to a list of email messages. If no parent exists, up should take the user to the "home" activity of your app.

The back button, on the other hand, moves back through the stack of recent activities. This is limited to those activities in the current task (more about that in a moment). Think of it like the browser's back button. As a user navigates through an app and into others, the back button will take him backward through those activities, until he reaches the launcher. Once the user reaches the launcher, he can no longer press back.

Understand How Tasks Relate to the Back Stack

Tasks are collections of activities opened in chronological order by the user. A new task is created when the user opens an application from the launcher. Moving from one application to another generally doesn't start a new task. Instead, the new activity becomes part of the existing task. For example, if you navigate from an existing app to the Google Maps app, the displayed map will be part of the existing app task. Pressing back from the map will take the user back to the original app.

Each Android task has an associated back stack. The back stack can seem complicated at first, but its implementation is firmly rooted in basic computer science. It's just a stack. The elements in the stack are the screens of an app, called activities. As you navigate from one activity to another, the previous activity is pushed onto the stack. When you press the back button, the current activity (the current screen displayed to the user) is destroyed, and the activity at the top of the back stack is popped off and displayed to the user. If the back stack is empty, the user is taken back to the launcher.

An important point to note is that the system will not keep tasks around forever. When it needs resources, it will often clear the task and corresponding back stack. This is quite common, and you shouldn't rely on any particular back stack state to exist for your app to function correctly. If you really need it, however, it's possible to disable this behavior by setting the alwaysRetainTaskState attribute on an activity in your manifest.

Define the Proper Activity Attributes

By default, new activities are launched into existing tasks. This can be changed by setting activity attributes in your application manifest. For example, setting the launchMode attribute to singleTask ensures that only a single instance of an activity will be created:

<activity android:name=".TestActivity" 
    android:launchMode="singleTask">
</activity>

Now, intents for TestActivity will resume any task that already contains TestActivity, rather than creating another instance. If no instance exists, the system creates a new task containing TestActivity as normal.

Another useful activity attribute is taskAffinity. You can use taskAffinity to assign an activity to a particular task. By default, all activities in your application have the same affinity. Using the taskAffinity attribute, you can group them into separate tasks or even assign them to tasks in other applications. Here, the TestActivity is assigned to a specific task:

<activity android:name=".TestActivity" 
    android:taskAffinity="com.example.SecondTask">
</activity>

Read the Android documentation for a full explanation of the activity attributes available for controlling tasks.

Use Intent Flags

Activity attributes work well when you always want the same behavior for an activity. But sometimes you need control over a specific activity launch. For those cases, use Intent flags. Intents are used to launch activities on Android. You can set flags that control the task that will contain the activity. Flags exist to create a new activity, use an existing activity, or bring an existing instance of an activity to the front.

For example, it's common to launch an activity when the user taps a notification. Often, apps will use the default intent flags, resulting in multiple copies of the same activity in the back stack. This forces the user to press back repeatedly while each instance of the activity is popped off the back stack. To fix this problem, set the flags Intent.FLAG_ACTIVITY_NEW_TASK and Intent.FLAG_ACTIVITY_CLEAR_TASK to switch to an existing instance of the activity and clear any other activities on top of it:

Intent intent = new Intent(context, TestActivity.class);
intent.setFlags(Intent.FLAG_ACTIVITY_CLEAR_TASK | Intent.FLAG_ACTIVITY_NEW_TASK);
startActivity(intent);

Note that in Android API version 11, the Intent class includes new static methods that create intents with the proper flags already set. Look here for an example.

Use the New Compatibility Package Classes

Google's recent update to the compatibility package added two new utility classes to aid with app navigation. The first of these utilities is called NavUtils. It provides static methods for navigating up to the parent of the current activity, as declared in your application manifest. Here is an example manifest entry:

<activity android:name=".TestActivity" >
    <meta-data android:name="android.support.PARENT_ACTIVITY"
        android:value=".TestParentActivity">
    </meta-data>
</activity>

TestParentActivity is declared as a parent of TestActivity using a metadata element.

Now, in the TestActivity class, NavUtils is used to navigate up to TestParentActivity when the user presses the up button:

@Override
public boolean onOptionsItemSelected(android.view.MenuItem item) {
    if (item.getItemId() == android.R.id.home) {
        NavUtils.navigateUpFromSameTask(this);
        return true;
    }
    return super.onOptionsItemSelected(item);
}

The up button uses the same resource identifier as the ActionBar home icon, android.R.id.home. In addition to navigation, the NavUtils class provides a Boolean method specifying whether the current activity should display an up button.

The second class is TaskStackBuilder. This class can be used to construct a complete back stack, with a root activity and several activities on top of it. This back stack is created with a stack of intents. Calling startActivities() will create the back stack using the intents to create each activity and pushing it onto the stack.

TaskStackBuilder tsb = TaskStackBuilder.from(this);
tsb.addParentStack(this);
tsb.addNextIntent(new Intent(this, TestActivity.class));
tsb.addNextIntent(new Intent(this, TestActivity.class));
tsb.addNextIntent(new Intent(this, TestActivity.class));
tsb.startActivities();

This example adds three copies of the TestActivity to the current back stack. The user will have to press back three times to return to the existing activity. Using TaskStackBuilder, you can create tasks with entire back stack histories from scratch.

Test Your App

The last tip should be obvious: Test your app. Spend time testing all the different ways users can enter the activities in your application. If you provide an activity that can be reached from multiple places (a settings activity, for example), test navigating to it from throughout your app to see if it creates more than one instance. Think carefully about whether you want users to be pressing back through multiple copies of the same activity.

Test entering your application from notifications, widgets, and other apps. Be aware of possible memory issues. If you create multiple instances of a memory-intensive activity, it can cause an OutOfMemoryException. If your app provides a service that other apps might use, such as messaging, test how the user will move from other apps into your app. Follow the principle of least surprise. You never want users to be confused about why they're seeing a particular activity.

Conclusion

With each new release, Android development becomes easier. But you still need to think about navigation basics if you want to provide the best possible experience. Remember, users expect your app to behave like other Android apps. It's not enough to port existing user interfaces from other platforms. By learning the platform, thinking through the user interaction of your app, and thoroughly testing, you can create an app that delights its users.

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