The One Really Nice Thing About Android’s Back Button

By  |  Monday, October 31, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Back in June, I took up the unpopular stance that Android’s navigation buttons are kind of useful. This was before Google introduced Android Ice Cream Sandwich, which, as rumored, allows smartphones to drop physical buttons in favor of software buttons.

But Ice Cream Sandwich doesn’t remove buttons altogether, it just moves them to a different place, leading Mobisle Apps Co-Founder Christoffer Du Rietz to conclude that Android is conceptually broken because it’s doomed to carry these buttons forever:

“The problem is, that Android hasn’t decided what that it wants the back button to do. Do you want it to take you back to the previous screen, wherever that was, or take you back one step inside the app? Right now it’s a convoluted combination of the two, and most of the time, which one will occur is a guess and can’t be known before pressing the button.”

I agree that the inconsistency of Android buttons is a problem, because you don’t always know what’s going to happen when you press “back,” “menu” or “search.” But I’m still happy to have these buttons, and the back button in particular, for one reason: “Back” is universal. It allows you to move not just within apps, but between them.

When I’m using an app such as Twitter, and an e-mail notification comes in, I can check the e-mail and then tap the back button twice to return to Twitter (once to return to the e-mail inbox, and again to go back to the last app.) Unlike with the iPhone, I don’t have to call up a multitasking menu or return to the home screen. I just tap the back button, often without even looking at the phone.

This method of multitasking–primary app into secondary app via notification, and then back into the primary app with the back button–is probably one of the most common ways that I navigate through my phone. I get a weird rush of satisfaction every time this exchange happens. It’s the feeling of technology working to my advantage.

Over at Daring Fireball, John Gruber figures that eventually, Google could add a way for apps to abandon the back button if they don’t need it. I hope that never happens, because it would threaten the inter-app navigation that Android currently permits. Sure, Android is a conceptual mess, but in a way, it can also be a beautiful one.

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15 Comments For This Post

  1. Steve Says:

    Yup. Besides, touchscreen navigation is so hit-and-miss that the back button is absolutely essential. Its absence on iPhones is yet another of Steve Jobs' arrogant "beautiful" design features that cripple usability. Likewise the inability to swap out batteries–and the omission of haptic feedback, which helps make touchscreen keyboards genuinely useful.

  2. Brandon Backlin Says:

    Meh, almost everything I hit with my iPod Touch's screen is a definite "hit", except the keyboard. I have large hands. Haptic feedback would be nice however, especially when typing.

    Some apps on iOS have a "back button", which is typically located on the top-left corner of the screen, that behaves universally (stepping backwards in sequence like I would expect a back button to do). It's just up to the developer to implement it.

  3. sam Says:

    Not at all, its an absolute pain to use iOS devices because of the tiny button on them and the lack of functional back buttons. Al least it is unless your a beloved fan of Apple or something.
    For example on an ipad, browser navigation is so horrid with the built in safari browser. On my gf's ipad I have installed lunascape which is only slightly better.

  4. Valashtar Says:

    I can’t say that I would pick the Android back button as an example of technology working to my advantage. It is inconsitent in how it works, and I found myself getting more and more frustrated when it took me back to a list view of feeds in Google Reader but not to a list view of folders in Gmail, and instead to my home screen. Say what you will about iOS “tiny [back] buttons,” but it is nothing if not consistent in placement and execution.

  5. Zheng Says:

    I loved the back button. Too bad in ICS, the back button is moved to the far top left that it's hard for a normal right handed user to reach it single handedly.

  6. XGC75 Says:

    The button is flawed. It'll take whatever 'back' registers are present in the current app (who knows) before returning to the previous app, and a fixed # of taps before returning to the homescreen. It's a bet, for sure.

    I for one miss the consistency of webOS' interface. Let me interact with the apps (not within the apps, mind you) on the OS level, let me manage them as I please. At least the back gesture in that world was consistent, even app to app, and freed up precious screen real estate (let's be honest it needed it) for uninterrupted content. Android still has so much to learn/take/immitate from webOS.

  7. Addy@Joomla Design Says:

    I agree that back button works great even with its inconsistencies. But if it can be bypassed then it good as well.

  8. Mike Cerm Says:

    I love having a dedicated back key (though the back gesture in WebOS was obviously better), but I hate the inconsistency. It really ruins the experience of using Android, and it needs to be fixed. Either it should always take you up one level in an app (the way it worked in WebOS), or it should always go back to whatever you were just looking at (which would suck). Right now, it behaves differently depending on which app you're using, and how the app was launched. It's crazy.

    Similarly, long-pressing the Home button is totally broken, too. Should bring up a a list of your most recently used apps, just like double-tapping home on iOS does. For some reason, it omits apps that were launched by other apps. So, you click a link in Twitter, which opens in your default browser. You can long-press the home button to get back to Twitter, but you can't then long-press it to get back to the browser. You have to go back to the home screen, and launch it manually from there. It sucks.

    Despite Android's "true" multitasking, it's actually a lot more cumbersome to use than the "fake" multitasking in iOS and WP7. Not because it needs to be… It's just that no one at Google actually cares enough to do it right. Like how they made Ice Cream Sandwich by taking most of the bad ideas in Honeycomb and porting them to the phone. I just can't understand what they're thinking.

  9. Sir Fatty Says:

    “The problem is, that Android hasn’t decided what that it wants the back button to do.”

    These types of issues are only a problem for people who need to fill up a tech blog every day. IRL, this is not an issue for me, or any of the people I know with an android device.

  10. Dave Says:

    However flawed, the back button is great. I just wonder why Google removed the search button from ICS.

  11. Dave Says:

    Nevermind. I don't know what I was thinking. It is the back key that is gone (moved). Which is a terrible idea.

  12. JohnFen Says:

    I understand the complaints about the back button, but I have to say that I’d never actually noticed the inconsistencies. Not to say they aren’t there (I haven’t tested it yet), but that any such inconsistencies are so low-impact that I’ve never noticed them. The back button seems to always do what I intend, I guess.

    I’m a big fan of the buttons, personally. They all do what I need, and I use them constantly.

  13. Dave Says:

    I got my wife a cheap Android phone to tide her over until the iPhone 4s came out. She got used to the back button. The other day she was looking at a photo on facebook on out iPad. She could not figure out how to go back to her news feed. I had to show her that you had to tap the screen and then the invisible "done" button comes up.

  14. Adlerrot Says:

    I am surprised that no one asked for a "forward button" this would make it so much easier to switch between pages and between apps. A forward button would make it easier to switch between apps. All browsers have forward and back buttons. I wish Android did also

  15. nevarmaor Says:

    A forward button would be so useful when I hit the back button, nothing happens, (thinking I missed the button, which actually happens quite frequently) I hit it again, and I go back two screens. PITA, especially when I have to re-enter searches I'm using. Seriously, what use is a back button without a forward button?