I like functionality of Android’s back button, but the inconsistency needs to be fixed
Whenever I pick up an iOS or other non-Android device to test it out, the one feature from Android that I immediately miss is the back button. Sure, with things like iOS the button to return to a previous menu is usually at the top left of the screen, but for some applications it is in different places, and others seem to like to hide it in a way that makes navigation quite difficult. In contrast, Android’s back button is always in the same place in the UI, and usually performs the same function. Unfortunately, I do have to say “usually” for a reason. Although Android’s back key is consistent in placement, it doesn’t always do what you would expect it to.
If you’re not exactly sure what I am talking about, allow me to illustrate with an example. I often use Google Reader to scroll through news stories, and sometimes open links in the browser. As far as I know, the stated function of Android’s back key is to take you back to the screen you were on previously, so one would expect that pressing the back key would return me from the browser to Google Reader. That isn’t always the case. I haven’t been able to get a consistent behavior down, but sometimes pressing the back key in this situation goes back to the previous browser page, sometimes it actually returns to Reader, and sometimes it closes the browser and returns me to the homescreen. So, not only does hitting the back key not do what I expect it to, it seems to do something different every time.
Not only that, when the back button decides to close the browser and show the homescreen eturning to Google Reader at all is something of a chore. If I try to use the recent tasks menu, it actually brings up the browser page I was on because I accessed it through Reader, but if I switch to that task I still can’t return to Reader because the back button doesn’t work properly. It seems that the task switcher is treating the browser and Reader as a single task, so if I can’t access Reader from the browser window then I can’t access it at all. I’ve even had situations where I had to force close and reopen Google Reader in order to get back to reading, and not have the application be stuck in the browser.
Some may blame this on a combination of Google Reader and Chrome beta, but I have also experienced the problem with plenty of other applications. In fact, it has been present since at least Android 2.3 Gingerbread. The problem seems to arise when you transition to one application through another, and the back button can’t decide whether to return you to your previous application or act on the one you have open now. It is a confusing problem, because in some situations you may actually want to go back to the previous application or screen, while in others you may want the back button to act on your current application.
However, thanks to the slight task switching bug, I think it would be best if the back button always returned you to the previous screen you were on, whether that means switching applications or not. I would assume that the behavior is inconsistent because the back action is supposed to adapt to different situations, but until it can do so properly a consistent result is what I am looking for. Of course, this problem may only bother me because of the way I use Android, so let me know in the comments if you’ve seen any odd behavior with the back button with your Android device.