I am in the process of adapting a large application to taking advantage of Android 3.x features and introducing tablet type look and feel. One thing I am unclear about is what the usage recommendation would be for using pop-up dialogs vs in page sections.

Specifically e.g. looking at the Settings screen for the Google Reader app on my Xoom this is done as a pop up dialog:

Google Reader app with pop up settings

On the other hand the Gmail client uses a two pane display as normal in screen display and not hovering over the rest:

Gmail app with in page settings

This seems to be more common (e.g. others using it are Android Market, Amazon Kindle, Youtube). But then others like Google Current uses the pop up style.

I personally prefer the in page, non pop up style, but thought I would ask about recommendations on how to decide between the two. E.g. I also have a multi page wizard process that would be suitable as a pop (an order process) over the affected data but I am uncertain how to choose or if to use those dialogs for anything beyond e.g. simple chooser or login dialog.

To complicate matters the iOS version seems to use lots of dialogs and I personally dont like it too much, but I am also not aware of UI design recommendations for iOS on that side.

So what would you recommend?

Update: There is now an official style guide that reflects Romains answer as far as I am concerned.

  • A single modal can be a good option when a task flow is contained entirely inside the modal, like a settings menu. In fact I think that's even part of Apple's Human Interface Guidelines for iPhone
    – Ben Brocka
    Dec 22, 2011 at 1:03
  • 1
    Interesting to know for iOS. On Android the majority seems to NOT do that and I prefer that actually. Dec 22, 2011 at 1:07
  • Depends on the use case; they're more common on large screens (I see them in Honeycomb but not android phones) because a full menu isn't entirely necessary. With a smaller pane you get more the impression that this is a submenu of the program, and "back" clearly takes you out of the modal window, whereas with a full screen menu you lose that instant apparent navigation.
    – Ben Brocka
    Dec 22, 2011 at 1:10

2 Answers 2


In general, it's best to avoid dialogs. This is especially true when the task in question may be lengthy (such as scrolling through and tweaking several preferences). It's also best to avoid dialogs for showing loading progress (use in-line progress indicators instead), and asking for confirmation of easily undoable actions (just offer undo).

Regarding settings: On Android, preferences are almost always presented full-screen. On tablets, you can both simplify preference browsing and rebalance the screen real estate by presenting preference categories and their individual preferences in a two-pane view. For simpler apps with shallow preference screens, a single, full screen is still best for consistency.

  • Thanks Roman. I guess the Google Reader and Google Currents teams did not get that memo yet. I think it would be good if a design guide around these sort of topics could be written for Android and be published as an official recommendation. And you should write it with Matthias and Reto or so ;-) Dec 22, 2011 at 19:05
  • Heh, it's not always easy to practice what you preach unfortunately :-/ Dec 23, 2011 at 5:44

I doubt there is a "correct" to do UI things in Android. Even Google has trouble maintaining clear guidelines: see Google Currents - Yet another contribution to the UI-fragmentation of Android

Some people argue that "uniformity is overrated" and I tend to agree. All website use a different look and feel and people do not seem to have trouble navigating a new site.

As such, I think a dialog or a page is more a question of a personal taste. I personnally prefer to avoid dialog box, as I find them flow disruptive.

  • +1, I much prefer the two pane dialog, because you can just switch to a different pane without having to close the dialog.
    – Johan
    Dec 22, 2011 at 15:01
  • 1
    With Ice Cream Sandwich Google is supposed to be addressing much of the UI style issues; I wonder if Currents is matching the new style.
    – Ben Brocka
    Dec 22, 2011 at 15:02
  • No.. it is changing it all again. I think these style guides should be established and written down. Of course only as a recommendation. Dec 22, 2011 at 19:06

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