Evolution of Android Homescreen and Navigation

How key features of Google’s core mobile operating system have changed over the last ten years

E.K. Chung
May 15, 2018 · 7 min read

For Android’s 10th anniversary, we thought it’d be cool to look back and see how it’s evolved. As you can imagine, the operating system has had quite a transformation since 2008 — the year that Twilight hit theaters and Beyoncé’s Single Ladies was topping the charts.

From the beginning, Android has been a powerful platform of innovation and individuality, and that holds true today. Simplicity has always been a key goal for the team, guiding us towards making the user interface (UI) feel more modern and approachable. But that simplicity doesn’t entail a loss of power or functionality. The Android operating system helps people to do more with ease by working harder behind the scenes, hiding complexity they might otherwise have to deal with. There are three ways this simplicity shows up in the experience.

First, the look and feel. For example, in the early days, our iconography tended toward skeuomorphism and mimicking things in the physical world. As people became more familiar with Android, the icons evolved into more suggestive, cleaner shapes. Some of the elements on Android phones even disappeared as we made our system more capable.

Second, the interaction. Cohesive UI patterns and a gesture framework made interacting with UI elements more intuitive and predictable. Similar elements behave as one might expect. As a result, understanding how to do even new things becomes much easier.

Lastly, how people get things done. This is what we’ve started to focus on in recent years. Android has grown to power more than 2 billion devices with access to more than 3 million apps. Sometimes, people need to interact with multiple apps to get something done. This simplification is thus about bringing the content and actions directly to the people who want them, and at the right moment. This eliminates the need to move among many different apps to complete a single task.

Let’s take a look at some of the releases in Android history to see how simplification was achieved.

The T-Mobile G1 ushered in the Android era. Pull-down notifications were a successful innovation with Android from the very beginning. While reading and managing notifications has become more sophisticated, the basic concept and gesture has remained the same 10 years later. Home screen widgets and customizable interfaces were among some of the other exciting features we introduced in the first version.

While it was a good start, there were also a few things that felt confusing. The system used a plethora of physical buttons, as well as a touch interface. There were buttons for call, end call, home, back, menu, a physical keyboard, and even a trackball. Switching between the trackball / keyboard and the touchscreen was awkward, and the lack of consistent UI patterns made it hard to use. As a result, a software keyboard was introduced in the next release to replace the physical one.

In Ice Cream Sandwich, we simplified and streamlined the experience by moving away from physical navigation buttons in hardware to on-screen ones in software. This release came with an entirely new, coherent visual style and a greater focus on design. It brought a card-like appearance for app switching, and a unified gesture UI framework which enabled things like swiping to dismiss recent apps and notifications. Swipe gestures were established as an easy-to-use pattern and applied widely in other UI surfaces and apps later.

With KitKat, the visual language of Android grew brighter, more open, and yummier. Once dominant colors like black and blue disappeared with our “de-bluing” effort (yes, this was a thing for us), and in their place came lighter colors along with transparency throughout the UI. This created a more contemporary, modern look.

Lollipop represented Android’s most ambitious UX transformation yet. Material Design introduced a whole new look and was applied across all of Android and other Google products. The use of familiar tactile attributes, shadows and light from the physical world made it more approachable and friendly. It also created a consistent system that unified UIs and interaction patterns across the system and apps, helping users interact and use their device more easily.

Minimal, elegant geometric shapes (triangle, circle and square) represented back, home and recent buttons. It was a distinctive departure from icons that were depictive. At the time it was considered a riskier move but shifting the aesthetic was necessary to stay current, even forward-thinking.

In Oreo, we continued to simplify the Android experience with even more visual cohesion, easier gestures, and quick search.

We introduced a way for all icons to have a consistent shape when displayed. Gone are the days when you had a hodgepodge of varying icon shapes across your homescreen. The all-apps button was replaced by a gesture: swiping up from the homescreen brings up all apps. While controversial during development, it was ultimately well-received by users because the broad gesture of swiping up was a lot easier than a precise tap on a button.

We also moved the quick search box to the bottom of the screen; this felt more natural as it was within easy tap range. Moving the quick search box to the bottom also introduced a way to navigate the phone as well: by tightly integrating search into the OS, users can quickly find the apps and content they are looking for.

Our goal with Oreo was to make Android feel even cleaner and more refined, leaving your homescreen functional but still approachable.

At Google I/O 2018, we revealed the P release — the latest step in the evolution of Android’s user experience, coinciding with the 10th anniversary of Android itself.

The way we use our phones has changed. More apps (and services like Google Assistant) have expanded what we can accomplish. The way we complete tasks has also changed; everyday things like planning a night out with friends now involves bouncing around multiple apps. Android P brings everything closer together.

In the new system UI, the primary functions—back and home—remain as familiar and universally-understood buttons, and we’ve combined Overview and All Apps into a single, more intelligent space accessible with a swipe up from the bottom.

This swipe-up gesture for displaying all your apps (introduced in Oreo) now works from within any app, bringing up apps you’ve recently used, apps you’re likely to launch next, and of course the list of all your apps. No matter which app you’re looking for, swiping up will bring it to you without having to return to the homescreen.

This complements the existing swipe-down gesture for the Notifications and Quick Settings space that continues to be accessible. With these two universally available gestures, our most common actions are within easy reach at any time.

The new Overview lets you see and access content in recently used apps. You can swipe up and quickly see each app then act upon the content, such as quickly looking up the restaurant your friend recommended or copying the name of an alternate suggestion and sending it back to them. It makes multitasking and task switching very easy.

Not only are we making launching and switching apps faster, we’re also bringing the right content and control to users via predicted actions and slices — new UI templates that can display interactive content from your app.

When you pull up to see all of your apps, you’ll also see predicted actions so that you can quickly take an action. Slices will bring rich content and functionality to users at the time and place they need them, and when they are most relevant. By directly displaying deeper functionality from apps in the OS, Android is more efficient and easier to use.

There are many great design updates and features in Android P beyond what we’ve shared here. We hope that you will find this release as exciting and delightful as we do. It’s a wonderful milestone for Android as we embark on the next 10 years.

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