December 03, 2011

Android’s “sticky row” of icons

Have you seen Android home screen?  Android’s home screen has a number of “pages”, usually 5 or 7.  You can keep different icons and widgets on each page.  There’s also a “sticky row” at the bottom; icons in that row are present in all pages of the home screen.  In this screenshot, Phone, People, Messaging, and Browser are all sticky, so they are present on all pages of the home screen.

Screenshot of Android home screen

Sticky row sure sounds useful in theory—because “important” apps can be accessed from all pages of the home screen, but I have never found it useful myself.  Once I am familiar with the icon layout, I hardly ever look for an icon in the home screen—I simply navigate to it instead.

Let’s say I am on 2nd page of the home screen of my phone and I want to open the browser.  Although the browser icon is present on the second page as well, I’d swipe over to the center page (which is the “main” page where I am mostly on) and then launch the browser from there1.  My brain has associated the main page with browser so it’s faster to launch it from there vs. looking for it on the 2nd page.

I believe this how it is for many people: this is why programs in Start menu are easier to find when they are in alphabetic order, but the icons on the desktop when in a familiar order.  Only this spatial familiarity makes us walk towards the kitchen without thinking when we are thirsty.  Walking to the kitchen first and then figuring out what we want from there is more efficient than doing it the other way around.

Most people won’t look so deep into this, and they don’t have to; it’s the job of UX/interaction designers to evaluate these ideas.  Which means, even if the Android team knows by now that the sticky row is useless, they cannot take it away lest upsetting users who think it’s a useful feature.  If I were to control whether the bottom row of my Android is sticky or not, I’d make it non-sticky2.

Notes:
1. If memory serves right, Android 2.0 (Eclair) was the first version of Android to have a sticky row.  I have been using Android from version 1.5 (Cupcake).  I got the sticky row feature when I upgraded to a Nexus One a year later.  I don’t know how much of an influence this has over my usage patterns.  Also, I am still using Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), so I cannot customise the icons in the sticky row.  My usage pattern may change when I upgrade to Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich).

2. I know Android is open source, so I can control if the bottom row on my phone is sticky or not.  But this annoyance is not reason enough for me to hack the home screen app.  Not yet.

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