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Android Development
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User Interface

In an Android application, the user interface is built using View and ViewGroup objects. There are many types of views and view groups, each of which is a descendant of the View class.

View objects are the basic units of user interface expression on the Android platform. The View class serves as the base for subclasses called "widgets," which offer fully implemented UI objects, like text fields and buttons. The ViewGroup class serves as the base for subclasses called "layouts," which offer different kinds of layout architecture, like linear, tabular and relative.

A View object is a data structure whose properties store the layout parameters and content for a specific rectangular area of the screen. A View object handles its own measurement, layout, drawing, focus change, scrolling, and key/gesture interactions for the rectangular area of the screen in which it resides. As an object in the user interface, a View is also a point of interaction for the user and the receiver of the interaction events.

View Hierarchy

On the Android platform, you define an Activity's UI using a hierarchy of View and ViewGroup nodes, as shown in the diagram below. This hierarchy tree can be as simple or complex as you need it to be, and you can build it up using Android's set of predefined widgets and layouts, or with custom Views that you create yourself.

In order to attach the view hierarchy tree to the screen for rendering, your Activity must call the setContentView() method and pass a reference to the root node object. The Android system receives this reference and uses it to invalidate, measure, and draw the tree. The root node of the hierarchy requests that its child nodes draw themselves — in turn, each view group node is responsible for calling upon each of its own child views to draw themselves. The children may request a size and location within the parent, but the parent object has the final decision on where how big each child can be. Android parses the elements of your layout in-order (from the top of the hierarchy tree), instantiating the Views and adding them to their parent(s). Because these are drawn in-order, if there are elements that overlap positions, the last one to be drawn will lie on top of others previously drawn to that space.

For a more detailed discussion on how view hierarchies are measured and drawn, read How Android Draws Views.

Layout

The most common way to define your layout and express the view hierarchy is with an XML layout file. XML offers a human-readable structure for the layout, much like HTML. Each element in XML is either a View or ViewGroup object (or descendent thereof). View objects are leaves in the tree, ViewGroup objects are branches in the tree (see the View Hierarchy figure above).

The name of an XML element is respective to the Java class that it represents. So a <TextView> element creates a TextView in your UI, and a <LinearLayout> element creates a LinearLayout view group. When you load a layout resource, the Android system initializes these run-time objects, corresponding to the elements in your layout.

For example, a simple vertical layout with a text view and a button looks like this:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<LinearLayout xmlns:android="http://schemas.android.com/apk/res/android"
              android:layout_width="fill_parent" 
              android:layout_height="fill_parent"
              android:orientation="vertical" >
    <TextView android:id="@+id/text"
              android:layout_width="wrap_content"
              android:layout_height="wrap_content"
              android:text="Hello, I am a TextView" />
    <Button android:id="@+id/button"
            android:layout_width="wrap_content"
            android:layout_height="wrap_content"
            android:text="Hello, I am a Button" />
</LinearLayout>

Notice that the LinearLayout element contains both the TextView and the Button. You can nest another LinearLayout (or other type of view group) inside here, to lengthen the view hierarchy and create a more complex layout.

For more on building a UI layout, read Declaring Layout.

There are a variety of ways in which you can layout your views. Using more and different kinds of view groups, you can structure child views and view groups in an infinite number of ways. Some pre-defined view groups offered by Android (called layouts) include LinearLayout, RelativeLayout, TableLayout, GridLayout and others. Each offers a unique set of layout parameters that are used to define the positions of child views and layout structure.

To learn about some of the different kinds of view groups used for a layout, read Common Layout Objects.

Widgets

A widget is a View object that serves as an interface for interaction with the user. Android provides a set of fully implemented widgets, like buttons, checkboxes, and text-entry fields, so you can quickly build your UI. Some widgets provided by Android are more complex, like a date picker, a clock, and zoom controls. But you're not limited to the kinds of widgets provided by the Android platform. If you'd like to do something more customized and create your own actionable elements, you can, by defining your own View object or by extending and combining existing widgets.

Read more in Building Custom Components.

For a list of the widgets provided by Android, see the android.widget package.

UI Events

Once you've added some Views/widgets to the UI, you probably want to know about the user's interaction with them, so you can perform actions. To be informed of UI events, you need to do one of two things:

  • Define an event listener and register it with the View. More often than not, this is how you'll listen for events. The View class contains a collection of nested interfaces named On<something>Listener, each with a callback method called On<something>(). For example, View.OnClickListener (for handling "clicks" on a View), View.OnTouchListener (for handling touch screen events in a View), and View.OnKeyListener (for handling device key presses within a View). So if you want your View to be notified when it is "clicked" (such as when a button is selected), implement OnClickListener and define its onClick() callback method (where you perform the action upon click), and register it to the View with setOnClickListener().
  • Override an existing callback method for the View. This is what you should do when you've implemented your own View class and want to listen for specific events that occur within it. Example events you can handle include when the screen is touched (onTouchEvent()), when the trackball is moved (onTrackballEvent()), or when a key on the device is pressed (onKeyDown()). This allows you to define the default behavior for each event inside your custom View and determine whether the event should be passed on to some other child View. Again, these are callbacks to the View class, so your only chance to define them is when you build a custom component.

Continue reading about handling user interaction with Views in the Handling UI Events document.

Application menus are another important part of an application's UI. Menus offers a reliable interface that reveals application functions and settings. The most common application menu is revealed by pressing the MENU key on the device. However, you can also add Context Menus, which may be revealed when the user presses and holds down on an item.

Menus are also structured using a View hierarchy, but you don't define this structure yourself. Instead, you define the onCreateOptionsMenu() or onCreateContextMenu() callback methods for your Activity and declare the items that you want to include in your menu. At the appropriate time, Android will automatically create the necessary View hierarchy for the menu and draw each of your menu items in it.

Menus also handle their own events, so there's no need to register event listeners on the items in your menu. When an item in your menu is selected, the onOptionsItemSelected() or onContextItemSelected() method will be called by the framework.

And just like your application layout, you have the option to declare the items for you menu in an XML file.

Read Creating Menus to learn more.

Advanced Topics

Once you've grappled the fundamentals of creating a user interface, you can explore some advanced features for creating a more complex application interface.

Adapters

Sometimes you'll want to populate a view group with some information that can't be hard-coded, instead, you want to bind your view to an external source of data. To do this, you use an AdapterView as your view group and each child View is initialized and populated with data from the Adapter.

The AdapterView object is an implementation of ViewGroup that determines its child views based on a given Adapter object. The Adapter acts like a courier between your data source (perhaps an array of external strings) and the AdapterView, which displays it. There are several implementations of the Adapter class, for specific tasks, such as the CursorAdapter for reading database data from a Cursor, or an ArrayAdapter for reading from an arbitrary array.

To learn more about using an Adapter to populate your views, read Binding to Data with AdapterView.

Styles and Themes

Perhaps you're not satisfied with the look of the standard widgets. To revise them, you can create some of your own styles and themes.

  • A style is a set of one or more formatting attributes that you can apply as a unit to individual elements in your layout. For example, you could define a style that specifies a certain text size and color, then apply it to only specific View elements.
  • A theme is a set of one or more formatting attributes that you can apply as a unit to all activities in an application, or just a single activity. For example, you could define a theme that sets specific colors for the window frame and the panel background, and sets text sizes and colors for menus. This theme can then be applied to specific activities or the entire application.

Styles and themes are resources. Android provides some default style and theme resources that you can use, or you can declare your own custom style and theme resources.

Learn more about using styles and themes in the Applying Styles and Themes document.

Android Development
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