Even if your application is fast and responsive, certain design decisions can
still cause problems for users — because of unplanned interactions with
other applications or dialogs, inadvertent loss of data, unintended blocking,
and so on. To avoid these problems, it helps to understand the context in which
your applications run and the system interactions that can affect your
application. In short, you should strive to develop an application that
interacts seamlessly with the system and with other applications.
A common seamlessness problem is when an application's background process
— for example, a service or broadcast receiver — pops up a dialog in
response to some event. This may seem like harmless behavior, especially when
you are building and testing your application in isolation, on the emulator.
However, when your application is run on an actual device, your application may
not have user focus at the time your background process displays the dialog. So
it could end up that your application would display it's dialog behind the
active application, or it could take focus from the current application and
display the dialog in front of whatever the user was doing (such as dialing a
phone call, for example). That behavior would not work for your application or
for the user.
To avoid these problems, your application should use the proper system
facility for notifying the user — the
Notification classes. Using
notifications, your application can signal the user that an event has
taken place, by displaying an icon in the status bar rather than taking
focus and interrupting the user.
Another example of a seamlessness problem is when an activity inadvertently
loses state or user data because it doesn't correctly implement the onPause()
and other lifecycle methods. Or, if your application exposes data intended to be
used by other applications, you should expose it via a ContentProvider, rather
than (for example) doing so through a world-readable raw file or database.
What those examples have in common is that they involve cooperating nicely
with the system and other applications. The Android system is designed to treat
applications as a sort of federation of loosely-coupled components, rather than
chunks of black-box code. This allows you as the developer to view the entire
system as just an even-larger federation of these components. This benefits you
by allowing you to integrate cleanly and seamlessly with other applications, and
so you should design your own code to return the favor.
This document discusses common seamlessness problems and how to avoid them.
It covers these topics:
Don't Drop Data
Always keep in mind that Android is a mobile platform. It may seem obvious to
say it, but it's important to remember that another Activity (such as the
"Incoming Phone Call" app) can pop up over your own Activity at any moment.
This will fire the onSaveInstanceState() and onPause() methods, and will likely result in
your application being killed.
If the user was editing data in your application when the other Activity
appeared, your application will likely lose that data when your application is
killed. Unless, of course, you save the work in progress first. The "Android
Way" is to do just that: Android applications that accept or edit input should
override the onSaveInstanceState() method and save their state in some appropriate
fashion. When the user revisits the application, she should be able to
retrieve her data.
A classic example of a good use of this behavior is a mail application. If the
user was composing an email when another Activity started up, the application
should save the in-process email as a draft.
Don't Expose Raw Data
If you wouldn't walk down the street in your underwear, neither should your
data. While it's possible to expose certain kinds of application to the world
to read, this is usually not the best idea. Exposing raw data requires other
applications to understand your data format; if you change that format, you'll
break any other applications that aren't similarly updated.
The "Android Way" is to create a ContentProvider to expose your data to other
applications via a clean, well-thought-out, and maintainable API. Using a
ContentProvider is much like inserting a Java language interface to split up and
componentize two tightly-coupled pieces of code. This means you'll be able to
modify the internal format of your data without changing the interface exposed
by the ContentProvider, and this without affecting other applications.
Don't Interrupt the User
If the user is running an application (such as the Phone application during a
call) it's a pretty safe bet he did it on purpose. That's why you should avoid
spawning activities except in direct response to user input from the current
That is, don't call startActivity() from BroadcastReceivers or Services running in
the background. Doing so will interrupt whatever application is currently
running, and result in an annoyed user. Perhaps even worse, your Activity may
become a "keystroke bandit" and receive some of the input the user was in the
middle of providing to the previous Activity. Depending on what your
application does, this could be bad news.
Instead of spawning Activity UIs directly from the background, you should
instead use the NotificationManager to set Notifications. These will appear in
the status bar, and the user can then click on them at his leisure, to see
what your application has to show him.
(Note that all this doesn't apply to cases where your own Activity is already
in the foreground: in that case, the user expects to see your next Activity in
response to input.)
Got a Lot to Do? Do it in a Thread
If your application needs to perform some expensive or long-running
computation, you should probably move it to a thread. This will prevent the
dreaded "Application Not Responding" dialog from being displayed to the user,
with the ultimate result being the fiery demise of your application.
By default, all code in an Activity as well as all its Views run in the same
thread. This is the same thread that also handles UI events. For example, when
the user presses a key, a key-down event is added to the Activity's main
thread's queue. The event handler system needs to dequeue and handle that
event quickly; if it doesn't, the system concludes after a few seconds that
the application is hung and offers to kill it for the user.
If you have long-running code, running it inline in your Activity will run it
on the event handler thread, effectively blocking the event handler. This will
delay input processing, and result in the ANR dialogs. To avoid this, move
your computations to a thread. This Design for Responsiveness document
discusses how to do that..
Don't Overload a Single Activity Screen
Any application worth using will probably have several different screens.
When designing the screens of your UI, be sure to make use of multiple Activity
Depending on your development background, you may interpret an Activity as
similar to something like a Java Applet, in that it is the entry point for
your application. However, that's not quite accurate: where an Applet subclass
is the single entry point for a Java Applet, an Activity should be thought of
as one of potentially several entry points to your application. The only
difference between your "main" Activity and any others you might have is that
the "main" one just happens to be the only one that expressed an interest in
the "android.intent.action.MAIN" action in your AndroidManifest..xml file.
So, when designing your application, think of your application as a federation
of Activity objects. This will make your code a lot more maintainable in the long
run, and as a nice side effect also plays nicely with Android's application
history and "backstack" model.
Extend System Themes
When it comes to the look-and-feel of the user interface, it's important to
blend in nicely. Users are jarred by applications which contrast with the user
interface they've come to expect. When designing your UIs, you should try and
avoid rolling your own as much as possible. Instead, use a Theme. You
can override or extend those parts of the theme that you need to, but at least
you're starting from the same UI base as all the other applications. For all
the details, read Applying Styles and Themes.
Design Your UI to Work with Multiple Screen Resolutions
Different Android-powered devices will support different screen resolutions.
Some will even be able to change resolutions on the fly, such as by switching
to landscape mode. It's important to make sure your layouts and drawables
are flexible enough to display properly on a variety of device screens.
Fortunately, this is very easy to do. In brief, what you must do is
provide different versions of your artwork (if you use any) for the key
resolutions, and then design your layout to accommodate various dimensions.
(For example, avoid using hard-coded positions and instead use relative
layouts.) If you do that much, the system handles the rest, and your
application looks great on any device.
Assume the Network is Slow
Android devices will come with a variety of network-connectivity options. All
will have some data-access provision, though some will be faster than others.
The lowest common denominator, however, is GPRS, the non-3G data service for
GSM networks. Even 3G-capable devices will spend lots of time on non-3G
networks, so slow networks will remain a reality for quite a long time to
That's why you should always code your applications to minimize network
accesses and bandwidth. You can't assume the network is fast, so you should
always plan for it to be slow. If your users happen to be on faster networks,
then that's great — their experience will only improve. You want to avoid the
inverse case though: applications that are usable some of the time, but
frustratingly slow the rest based on where the user is at any given moment are
likely to be unpopular.
One potential gotcha here is that it's very easy to fall into this trap if
you're using the emulator, since the emulator uses your desktop computer's
network connection. That's almost guaranteed to be much faster than a cell
network, so you'll want to change the settings on the emulator that simulate
slower network speeds. You can do this in Eclipse, in the "Emulator Settings"
tab of your launch configuration or via a command-line
option when starting the emulator.
Don't Assume Touchscreen or Keyboard
Android will support a variety of handset form-factors. That's a fancy way of
saying that some Android devices will have full "QWERTY" keyboards, while
others will have 40-key, 12-key, or even other key configurations. Similarly,
some devices will have touch-screens, but many won't.
When building your applications, keep that in mind. Don't make assumptions
about specific keyboard layouts -- unless, of course, you're really interested
in restricting your application so that it can only be used on those devices.
Do Conserve the Device Battery
A mobile device isn't very mobile if it's constantly plugged into the
wall. Mobile devices are battery-powered, and the longer we can make that
battery last on a charge, the happier everyone is — especially the user.
Two of the biggest consumers of battery power are the processor, and the
radio; that's why it's important to write your applications to do as little
work as possible, and use the network as infrequently as possible.
Minimizing the amount of processor time your application uses really comes
down to writing efficient
code. To minimize the power drain from using the radio, be sure to handle
error conditions gracefully, and only fetch what you need. For example, don't
constantly retry a network operation if one failed. If it failed once, it's
likely because the user has no reception, so it's probably going to fail again
if you try right away; all you'll do is waste battery power.
Users are pretty smart: if your program is power-hungry, you can count on
them noticing. The only thing you can be sure of at that point is that your
program won't stay installed very long.