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Android UI layouts and views: all you need to know

Ilia Lotarev

Updated: January 16, 2024

20 min read

Content

android layouts and views

Welcome to our comprehensive guide on mastering Android UI layout and views. As the backbone of app design, knowing the possibilities and limitations of these tools is essential for developers, and mastering them helps create seamless, intuitive, and visually appealing app interfaces. 

We dive deep into the various types of layouts and views, exploring their unique attributes and functionalities. We also provide some examples and best practices for designing and implementing the Views, ensuring that your app looks great and provides an outstanding user experience. 

The guide is written from a beginner’s perspective, with some explaining that might seem unnecessary to a more experienced developer. However, it never hurts to go over the basics. Let’s go!

What is an Android View

In Android, a View (public class Views) is the basic building block for creating UI components. Think of it as a small rectangle on the screen that can display content or respond to user interactions. Each View is a fundamental element for creating various types of interactive and display components in an app.

Basic Views include:

  • TextView is one of the most fundamental View types. It’s used to display text to the user. You can customize the appearance of the text by changing its color, size, font, and alignment. 
  • Button is another pretty basic element. When a user taps a button, it triggers an event in the app, allowing it to respond to the user’s input.
  • ImageView is pretty self-explanatory: it’s used for displaying images. You can manipulate images in ImageView, such as resizing them or changing their aspect ratio.
  • EditText is an interactive TextView that allows users to input and edit text. It’s commonly used in forms, search bars, and messaging apps. You can use various input types like text, number, and password, and set various properties to control the text, like limiting the number of characters or allowing only numbers.
  • CheckBox is employed for multiple options that can be either checked or unchecked. They are often used in settings and forms and operate independently from one another.
  • RadioButton is used for making a single selection from a group of options. When one RadioButton in a group is selected, the others are automatically deselected. This makes them perfect for choices like selecting a payment method or choosing a shipping option.
  • Switch is a two-state toggle that can select between two options, often used in settings for turning a feature on or off. It provides a quick and easy way for users to control a setting.
  • ProgressBar is used to display the progress of an operation, providing visual feedback to the user. They can be styled as a spinning wheel or a horizontal bar filling up. 
  • SeekBar is a type of ProgressBar that adds a thumb to the progress line which a user can drag to set a value within a predefined range. It’s often used for settings like adjusting volume or screen brightness.

Views can also be custom: that is, present a different state of an object. For example, a Button view can change its color or shadow on hover (onHoverEvent) or touch (onTouchEvent). The official Android guide has more examples of Custom Views.

What is a View Group

A View Group holds together other Views or even View Groups. It’s essentially a way to combine different Views, allowing for more complex and organized layouts in your app. A View is a basic UI element that is meant to be displayed on the screen, like a button or a text field, a View Group doesn’t display any content of its own but serves as a container to organize and manage other Views.

View Groups provide a structural framework that helps in organizing various Views within a screen. By nesting Views within a View Group, developers can create hierarchical and multi-layered layouts. They are responsible for defining the layout properties of the Views contained within them and often override the basic settings. This includes how these Views are positioned and displayed on the screen.

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What are the Android Layouts

Layouts in Android serve as the cornerstone for designing and arranging user interfaces. They are essentially like View Groups but are defined by an XML file rather than as a component. They can often include several View Groups and are the map that dictates how different views and elements are organized on the screen. It’s the structural framework that defines the visual structure of a UI. 

Mastering the layouts is important because they provide a systematic way to arrange different interface components, ensuring that the app is both aesthetically pleasing and functionally effective. Android devices have a wide range of different screen sizes and resolutions, and layouts help in creating responsive interfaces that adapt seamlessly to various dimensions, with elements like buttons and text fields being logically placed for easy interaction.

Layouts also streamline the development process. By defining a consistent structure for UI elements, they make it easier for developers to implement and modify the app’s interface. A well-structured layout can significantly reduce the complexity of app maintenance, with UI designers and developers being able to change several components instead of entire screens quickly.

Types of Android UI Layouts

You can organize various types of Views and View Groups into different Layouts:

  • LinearLayout organizes Views in a linear order, horizontally or vertically. It is straightforward and efficient for arranging elements in a single row or column. This layout is particularly useful for creating forms, toolbars, or any interface where a sequential arrangement of elements is needed.
  • GridView displays items in a two-dimensional, scrollable grid. Similar to ListView, it uses an Adapter to fill its cells with Views. GridView is ideal for displaying a collection of images, icons, or data in a uniform grid, like a photo gallery or a settings menu. 
  • TableLayout: as the name suggests, it arranges Views in a grid-like format, similar to a table. It’s useful for displaying rows of data or elements that need to be aligned in columns and rows. Each row in a TableLayout can contain multiple Views, and each View is placed in a cell. This layout is beneficial when creating calculators, timetables, or any interface with a tabular structure.
  • FrameLayout is designed to hold a single child View, but it can contain multiple child Views, which are positioned based on the top-left corner. It’s a simple container used to display a single item, like an image or a piece of text. FrameLayout is often used for its simplicity in handling UI elements like a loading spinner or as a placeholder for fragments in an app.
  • ListView displays a list of scrollable items, automatically inserted into the list using an Adapter. It’s efficient for displaying datasets that scroll vertically, like a contact list or a menu. The key difference between this option and LinearLayout is that the ListView recycles the item views when scrolling, making it memory-efficient for long lists.
  • AbsoluteLayout enables you to specify the exact location of child Views. Each View can be positioned with specific x and y coordinates. However, it’s not recommended for use as it doesn’t adapt well to different screen sizes and orientations. Due to its lack of flexibility and the complexity of maintaining it across various screen sizes, it’s generally avoided in modern Android development.
  • RelativeLayout allows Views to be positioned in relation to each other or to the parent container. It offers greater flexibility than LinearLayout as it enables developers to create complex layouts without the need for nested containers. For example, you can align a button to the right of a TextView or at the center of the screen. It’s ideal for designing interfaces where the position of elements depends on others.

Each layout type serves a unique purpose and understanding when to use which layout is key to creating effective and user-friendly Android applications. Developers choose layouts based on the requirements of the app’s design and the relationships between UI elements.

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How to write the XML?

In Android development, layouts as part of the general UI structure of your app are defined by XML files. Here’s some guidance on their syntax:

  • XML layout files start with the <layout> tag followed by a root ViewGroup, such as <LinearLayout>, <RelativeLayout>, etc. Each UI component (View) is defined within this root ViewGroup;
  • each View and ViewGroup in the layout has attributes. These are key-value pairs defined within the opening tag of a View or ViewGroup, such as android:layout_width="wrap_content" or android:text="Hello World!";
  • to use Android’s built-in attributes, you need to include the Android XML namespace in your root element: xmlns:android="http://schemas.android.com/apk/res/android".

Here are some basic rules about the structure and hierarchy of an XML file:

  • every layout file must have a single root element, which is a ViewGroup that contains other Views and ViewGroups;
  • organize your UI components logically: ViewGroups can nest other ViewGroups or Views to create complex layouts;
  • proper indentation and spacing are essential for readability: keep a consistent style throughout your XML files.
  • deeply nested layouts (layouts within layouts) can lead to performance issues since each additional layer adds complexity to the layout rendering process.
  • a well-organized hierarchy makes it easier to manage and update your layout. Aim for a shallow hierarchy where possible.
  • the hierarchy impacts how your layout behaves on different screen sizes and orientations. A flexible hierarchy with appropriate layout constraints ensures better responsiveness.

Mastering XML files takes time, and most developers find their own way to do it. However, there’s some fairly universal advice from us:

  • avoid deep nesting: you can use ConstraintLayout to create complex layouts with fewer levels.
  • use match_parent and wrap_content wisely: match_parent makes the View expand to fit its parent, while wrap_content sizes the View to fit its content; choose based on your layout needs.
  • include comments with <!-- Comment --> and use them to explain complex parts of your layout;
  • assign descriptive IDs to your Views with android:id="@+id/name": this makes it easier to reference them in your Java or Kotlin code.

XML File Example

Here’s a simple example of an XML layout file ерфе shows a LinearLayout containing a TextView and a Button, each with its own attributes. The layout is clear, structured, and easy to understand, highlighting the importance of syntax, structure, and hierarchy:

<LinearLayout xmlns:android="http://schemas.android.com/apk/res/android"
    android:layout_width="match_parent"
    android:layout_height="match_parent"
    android:orientation="vertical">

    <TextView
        android:id="@+id/textView"
        android:layout_width="wrap_content"
        android:layout_height="wrap_content"
        android:text="Hello World!" />

    <Button
        android:id="@+id/button"
        android:layout_width="wrap_content"
        android:layout_height="wrap_content"
        android:text="Click Me" />
</LinearLayout>

Load the XML resource

You need to load an XML layout into your app to display the UI, and it can be accomplished in 2 ways: 

Using setContentView() in an Activity:
This process typically takes place in the onCreate() method. First, you define your XML layout in the res/layout directory. Then, within your Activity, you call setContentView(R.layout.layout_name), where layout_name is the name of your XML layout file. This method sets the layout for the entire screen of the Activity. Once you’ve called setContentView(), you can interact with the Views in the XML file using methods like findViewById() to manipulate them.

Inflating XML layouts as View objects:
This method is a bit different and is mainly used in Fragments, Custom Views, or Adapters. This is where the LayoutInflater class comes into play. It’s used to instantiate layout XML files into their corresponding View objects. For example, in a Fragment, you would use LayoutInflater in the onCreateView() method to inflate the layout. The process involves passing the layout resource ID, the parent ViewGroup (which is often null in Fragments), and a boolean for whether to attach the inflated layout to the ViewGroup. This method allows for more flexibility as it’s used for creating View hierarchies from XML files for specific parts of the screen, rather than the entire screen.

The choice between using setContentView() and inflating a layout depends on the context. setContentView() is specific to Activities and sets the layout for the entire screen, whereas layout inflation offers more flexibility and is used in a variety of contexts, including for individual items in a ListView or for a specific Fragment’s layout. This understanding is crucial for effective UI development in Android, ensuring the appropriate presentation of layouts in different parts of an app.

Layout Attributes

XML attributes play an important role in defining the properties and behavior of UI elements. Among these, layout_width and layout_height are two of the most commonly used attributes. They are essential for determining the size of Views and ViewGroups. Here are some common XML attributes and what they can be used for.

AttributePurpose
layout_widthSpecifies the width of a View or ViewGroup. Common values include match_parent, wrap_content, and specific dimensions.
layout_heightSpecifies the height of a View or ViewGroup. Like layout_width, it can be match_parent, wrap_content, or a specific size.
layout_gravityUsed in certain ViewGroups like LinearLayout or FrameLayout to specify the position of a View within the ViewGroup.
padding or marginpadding defines the space inside the View boundaries, while margin defines the space outside, around the View.
idAssigns a unique identifier to a View, which is crucial for referencing the View in your Java or Kotlin code.
srcUsed in ImageView to define the source image.
textSets the text displayed by a TextView or a Button.
orientationDefines the direction (vertical or horizontal) in ViewGroups like LinearLayout.
gravitySpecifies the alignment of a View’s content, such as text in a TextView or Button.

These attributes are integral to the design and functionality of your app interface. layout_width and layout_height are mandatory for every View and ViewGroup, as they dictate their size. Attributes like layout_gravity, padding, and margin further refine the positioning and spacing, greatly helping to create a polished look on any device. The id attribute is essential for programmatically manipulating Views, such as setting listeners or altering their properties at runtime. Meanwhile, attributes like src, text, and orientation are more specific to the type of View and define their primary characteristics.

Understanding and effectively using these XML attributes is key to creating functional, well-designed Android apps. They allow developers to create interfaces that are not only visually appealing but also user-friendly and responsive to different device sizes and orientations. 

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Best practices to create Android UI layouts

Coming up with efficient, responsive, and accessible UI layouts for Android apps involves a blend of best practices and easy-to-pick-up tips to ensure an appealing, functional, and inclusive user experience. Here’s how you can achieve this:

  1. Start by adopting ConstraintLayout, a flexible and performance-oriented layout manager that supports complex yet flat hierarchies, improving rendering performance. Minimize the depth of your view trees to optimize layout hierarchies, and use tools like the Layout Inspector in Android Studio for analysis. For lists and grids, it’s recommended RecyclerView as it recycles view elements efficiently. Pay attention to draw operations; reduce overdraw by avoiding unnecessary backgrounds and optimize image sizes and resolutions, using libraries like Glide or Picasso for better handling.
  2. When considering responsiveness across different screen sizes, employ density-independent pixels (dp) to keep view dimensions consistent. Your layouts should be responsive, making effective use of attributes like match_parent, wrap_content, and weight in LinearLayout or constraints in ConstraintLayout. Always remember to test your application on a variety of devices and screen sizes to ensure scalability and prevent any failures. Sometimes, combining different layouts may yield the best results across various screens.
  3. Accessibility is a key aspect of UI design. Ensure there is sufficient contrast between text and background colors and avoid using color as the sole method of conveying information. Whenever possible, make touch targets like buttons large enough for easy interaction, with a minimum recommended size of 48dp.
    Another important addition is labeling the non-text elements descriptively to aid screen readers like TalkBack and structuring your app so that its navigation order is logical and predictable for these tools. Support dynamic text sizing by respecting user preferences for font sizes and ensure your app is navigable using a hardware keyboard, catering to users with motor impairments.

Incorporating these strategies enhances user experience, making your app more accessible and usable by a diverse audience. Regular testing and feedback, especially from users with disabilities, are invaluable for continuous improvement in the accessibility and usability of your app.

FAQs

A View is a basic UI element like a button or text field, while a Layout is a View Group that arranges these Views on the screen; a View is a part of a layout.

LinearLayout allows for more simple UIs with a linear arrangement of elements. ConstraintLayout, however, is better suited for complex, flat hierarchies and more flexible positioning of Views.

ConstraintLayout is generally the most efficient in Android Studio for creating complex, performance-optimized UIs with minimal nesting.

ConstraintLayout typically offers the best performance, allowing complex designs with fewer nested elements, and enhancing rendering speed and efficiency.

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