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March 30, 2015

Android Navigation Icon History

Filed under: Main — Tags: — admin @ 12:01 am

Technology tends toward improvement. This improvement is positive, based on real life feedback. And overlooking Windows 8, mostly it’s successful. As a case in point, consider the basic navigation icons used in the Android operating system.

The Nexus One was heralded as the first Google Phone. I thought it was a sweet little gizmo. It had a sexy design, the only Android phone I’ve seen so far with a thumball.

As the prototypical Android phone, the Nexus One sported four “soft button” below the touchscreen, shown in Figure 1. These were the all-important, universal Android icons at that early stage in the operating system’s development.

Figure 1. The original Android icons and their names.

Figure 1. The original Android icons and their names.

The Back icon provided a universal form of navigation. If you’ve used iOS, you know that each app tends to follow its own method of “going back,” such as tapping a button, swiping the screen, or what-have-you. The Back icon offers refreshing consistency.

The Menu icon provides a contextual pop-up of commands, which don’t fit on the screen.

The Home icon returns you to the Home screen, acting as both navigation but also as an Exit command to leave an app.

Finally, Google is famous for searching, so a Search icon was considered valuable. It didn’t always work, however, as not every situation offered something to search for, e.g., you didn’t need the Search icon while playing a game.

Many of these basic icons had dual functions. You could long-press or double-tap an icon to bring up various features. For example, double-tapping the Menu icon would summon the onscreen keyboard. But overall, the dual purposes weren’t very consistent.

When Android Jellybean rolled into town, the Search icon disappeared. It moved off the bezel and found a home on only those apps that offered search capabilities. The Menu icon remained on Samsung devices, but taking its place on other devices is the Recent icon, shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Current and former variations on the Recent icon.

Figure 2. Current and former variations on the Recent icon.

In the old days, you’d long-press the Home icon to see the list of Recent apps, also called the Overview. Google apparently though the function so necessary that they promoted the feature to sport its own icon. Eventually, even Samsung got the hint, and all current Samsung tablets eschew the Menu icon in favor of the Recent icon.

Today these three icons are called the Navigation Icons: Back, Home, Recent, although not always in that order. They serve the universal function of getting from here to there, which is why they’re called navigation icons.

The Search and Menu icons still exist. Search appears in apps that offer Search capabilities. The Menu icon is now called the Action Overflow. It looks like a series of three vertical dots, again only in apps that require it.

The current slate of icons seems pretty stable. Google continues to improve the look and feel of the Android operating system, but I don’t see any major changes to the navigation icons for the near future. Then again, if an improvement can be found, it won’t surprise me to see things change.

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