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Android’s back button is still a ball of confusion and inconsistency

By Joe Levi June 2, 2014, 7:14 am
Android back button, tldr

Buttons on Android-powered devices have long been a source of confusion and frustration. Sometimes they’re there, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes the back button is on the left, sometimes it’s not.

They may be physical buttons, capacitive buttons, on-screen buttons, or some combination of two or three. Even the graphics for back, home, and running apps vary between devices made by different OEMs.

Apparently, the only thing consistent about these buttons is inconsistency.

capacitive and physical buttons

We’ve talked about why the hardware home button needs to go away before and the menu button has virtually disappeared. Only the running apps button seems to have avoided controversy. We wrote about how we’re not using the back button the right way back in 2012. Now, over two years later, Android’ back button is still a ball of confusion and inconsistency.


Picture your phone. You open one app, navigate through a few pages, then jump home, open another app, and navigate through a few more. Then you press the back button. Most expect that this will open the previous screen, then the one before, and so on. In many cases, that’s exactly what it does. The back button, with its seemingly straight-forward purpose, implies that pressing it will take you back to the previous screen. In many cases, it does not — and even in those cases, it’s inconsistent.

On my Nexus 5 running the stock ROM and default launcher, when I open an app (Gmail, for example), navigate through, do some searches, and read an email, I’ll have browsed through several “pages”. When I press the Home button, even if accidentally, I’m take to the home screen — just like you’d expect.


To get back to Gmail, one would expect that I’d just press the back button. In my case, you’d be wrong. It doesn’t work. I’m just looking at the home screen, my navigation history is apparently lost. I can press that button a dozen times, and it does absolutely nothing. Why is it even there in that case?

To make matters even more frustrating, when speaking with others on the Pocketnow team, my experience cannot be reliably reproduced. Some devices take you back into the previous app, like you’d expect, others leave you on the home screen.

It’s frustrating, to say the least.

To add to the confusion, many (but not all) apps have a soft “back” button in the upper left of many of their screens. This button takes you to the previous screen inside the app, but goes away once you get to the “top” level. This apparently duplicates — to a certain degree — the functionality of the system-wide back button.

back button

What do you think?

We need a consistent method to get to the previous screen, even if that means we have to press “back” fifty times to get to the screen we were on fifty screens ago.

Head down to the comments and tell us about your most interesting, frustrating, or funny story about using the back button.


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