Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Navigation in Xamarin.Forms

Navigation is a fundamental concept in mobile applications. Desktop computers have relatively large screens that lend themselves to many modeless windows, which allows users to see multiple views at once switch between tasks quickly. Mobile devices, on the other hand, have small screens. It would be impractical in most cases to show multiple views at once (no matter what Samsung's marketing says). As a result, mobile applications tend to be designed around the concept of moving from one full-screen view to another. In this post I'll describe the most common types of navigation in mobile apps and how to use them in Xamarin.Forms.

Types of navigation

Different mobile platforms provide different APIs and UIs for moving from one view to another, but a few common patterns have emerged.

Modal navigation is when one full screen view leads to another full screen view. No UI elements are shared between the original view and the new view. On a tablet the new view may actually only take up a subset of the screen (example: "form sheets" on iOS or "dialogs" on Android), but even in that case the view in the background is inaccessible. The user must interact with the new view until it is removed. Modal views are often temporary and brought on screen only long enough for the user to complete a task. As an example, consider the mail composer view in iOS which can be brought up in any app in order to send an email.

Hierarchical1 navigation is when a user is led through a series of two or more views with the ability to go back to previous screens. In most cases this can be thought of as a specialized type of modal navigation. The key difference is that the user can always go back to the previous view using standard UI elements, which are typically shared between the views. For instance, on iOS there is a navigation bar (UINavigationBar) at the top of the view with a back button on the left. On Android a user can either press the OS back button or press the back button on the ActivityBar (if it is showing).

iOS also natively supports using hierarchical navigation nested in popovers or other nested views that take up only a subset of the screen. Currently Xamarin.Forms only supports full-screen modals (no form sheets or dialogs), and there is no support for popovers yet. On a phone this isn't much of a limitation because you typically don't have room for popups, but on a tablet this is a bit of a frustrating limitation at the moment.

Which type to use?

Since there are two ways of navigating from one page to another you may be wondering which one you should use. The answer to this depends on what you want the user to see and what he should be able to do.

Modal navigation is a good choice when you want a user to complete some task before continuing. For instance, if a user is entering data in a form and needs to either fill it out completely and post it or cancel then maybe you shouldn't allow him to press "back". That might confuse him about what would happen to the partially filled out form. Is it saved? Can he come back to it later? It's better in this case to use a modal screen with a "Save" (or "Post" or "Submit" or "Login" etc.) button and (maybe) a "Cancel" button. Apple does this for emails in iOS.

Using hierarchical navigation, on the other hand, implies that the user can go back at any time. When one view logically follows from the previous then hierarchical navigation makes sense. For example, a multi-step process may lend itself toward flowing from one screen to another, but the user may want to return to earlier steps. This form of navigation is also ideal for inspecting details.

As an example of hierachical navigation in a familiar app consider the Music app in iOS. Tapping on an artist name in the app presents a list of albums by that artist. Tapping on an album presents a list of songs. The user can always go back to the albums view when looking at a songs view, and he can also go back to the artists view when looking at albums.

If you find yourself wondering "how do I prevent the user from going back?" then you probably should be using modal navigation. There are exceptions, but they are rare and should be considered carefully. There is currently no way of preventing the back action on Xamarin.Forms.

Combining navigation types

In many mobile applications you will find examples of both types of navigation. How does that work? In both types of navigation there is a concept of going to a new screen then going "back". (Note I don't say going "forward" because that might imply that you could go "back" and then go "forward" again, and that's not always the case. Think of "back" as "undo"). If your application goes from screen A to screen B using modal navigation and then goes to screen X using hierarchical navigation then there are two possible results for going "back". How does that work? Which view are you going back to? It can be either one, and the choice depends on your app's UX needs.

Conceptually you can think of your application as having two independent stacks: the modal stack and the hierarchical stack. When you perform a navigation from one screen to another you are "pushing" a new view onto one of those stacks. Since there are two stacks you can pop from either one.

However, it's slightly more complicated than that. There is only one global stack for modal views2, but each modally-presented view can actually have its own hierarchical navigation stack. Consider the following flow of screens:

A --(hierarchical)--> B --(modal)--> X --(hierarchical)-> Y

After that flow you are looking at screen Y. There are two options for going "back" which you could expose as two different UI options. Let's say you have a "cancel" button that pops the modal stack. In that case you return to screen B, and screen A is still available as an option to go back to. Screen X would be lost along with screen Y. Alternatively, if the user instead presses "back" from screen Y then he would return to screen X. Popping a modal view throws away any hierarchical view stack that may have existed in the popped view.

Most apps will end up using some combination of modal and hierarchical navigation, and it is important to carefully choose which type to use when moving from one screen to another. The type of transition and the resulting UI (do I see a "Back" button or a "Done" button?) implies something about the relationship between the views, and therefore alters users' expectations for what should happen. It's important that these expectations match reality or you will end up with a confusing app.

Implementing in Xamarin.Forms

It's possible that all of that seemed obvious to everyone, but the reason I went through the explanation is that I've seen a lot of confusion among new Xamarin.Forms users about which type of navigation to use and how the API works. That's because in Xamarin.Forms there are actually two orthogonal sets of functions for navigation (one for each type described above) combined into one interface: INavigation. These are the functions:

  • Modal navigation:
    • PushModalAsync
    • PopModalAsync
  • Hierarchical navigation:
    • PushAsync
    • PopAsync
    • PopToRootAsync

The first thing to remember here is that the "modal" functions go together, and the non-modal functions go together. That is, if you push a view using PushModalAsync then you must pop it using PopModalAsync. Likewise, if you push using PushAsync then you have to pop using PopAsync or PopToRootAsync. Why is there no PopModalToRootAsync? There could be in theory (I think), but modal navigation generally doesn't work that way so it's not provided.

The second thing to consider is that hierarchical navigation requires special UI for the back button. Where does that UI come from? It comes from a special kind of Page called NavigationPage. Therefore in order to use hierarchical navigation (i.e., in order to use PushAsync) you have to have aNavigationPage. This is the thing that actually keeps track of the hierarchical navigation stack, and it is responsible for putting the UI on the screen for going back to the previous page. Without a NavigationPage the PushAsync method will do nothing!

NavigationPage is easy to use. All you do is take your existing page and wrap it in a NavigationPage. For example, if your GetMainPage function looks like this:

public static Page GetMainPage()
    return new MyMainPage();

You would modify it to look like this instead:

public static Page GetMainPage()
    // Wrap in a NavigationPage
    return new NavigationPage(new MyMainPage());

Once you've done that you can use the Navigation property in MyMainPage (inherited from a base class) to call PushAsync, and the UI will automatically show you a back button to return to originalPage. When you do this you will notice that even the first page gets a bar at the top of the screen (a UINavigationBar on iOS and an ActionBar on Android(, even though there is no back button. You can put a title in there by setting the Title property of your page, and you can also include toolbar buttons (on the right) by setting the ToolbarItems property.

Other types of navigation

While modal and hierarchical navigation are the most common in mobile apps, there are a few other types that are commonly used as well. Some other common types you will see include:

  • Tab navigation
  • Master/detail (aka "flyout")

I won't go into detail about those types here, but it's good to know that they exist. I may cover these in a future post. I will, however, point out that each of these can be combined as well with either modal or hierarchical navigation. For instance, you can present a tabbed interface modally, or you can present a modal view from a tabbed interface. Likewise, a single tab may contain hierarchical navigation within it, or the master or detail view may have hierarchical navigation.

You can combine all of these forms of navigation together in complex ways. When doing so try to keep these things in mind. First, the organization of the UI (the flow of screens) should be determined based on what makes sense to the user. The APIs usually support nearly any combination you can think of, but a user has to understand at all times what the options in the UI mean and how each view relates to the others. For instance, if you have navigation nested in a tab then will he understand clearly what "back" will do?

Second, remember that each NavigationPage has its own hierarchical stack, but there is only one modal stack. If you push a view modally then it replaces the whole screen. If you push a view onto a NavigationPage then it replaces only the view within that NavigationPage, which may be inside (for example) a tab view. If you want the tab view to be hidden by a new view then the new view would be presented modally, or perhaps the tab view should be presented inside the NavigationPage. You need to compose the views and present them in whichever way makes sense for your UX.

Future topics

In a future post I will discuss how to deal with navigation in a clean way in the context of an MVVM architecture.

Further reading

  1. This is my term, but it's descriptive. I don't think I've seen an official term to describe this common pattern. 

  2. This is true for Xamarin.Forms, but the concept of a modal view stack doesn't really exist on iOS and works a bit differently on Android. Xamarin.Forms keeps track of the modal stack itself and does the right thing on each platform to present or dismiss the views correctly on that platform. 


  1. HI i have an app where i implemented master detail page which i use as menu. The app provide two ways to navigate to other pages. 1. by menu and 2. by dashboard links

    I have dashboard also from where a user can switch to other page. it works fine if i navigate from menu options. but if i want to navigate from my dashboard page to other page then i have a problem. the menu is not appear in the page which i am navigating. ex.

    My home page display menu as well as dashboard page. so if i navigate using menu, it just works fine. but if click on one of the widget on dashboard to navigate to that page, and i don't have any option to find the detail page at that time. so can you guide me how to do this?

  2. Sorry for the late response. I have been busy lately.

    It sounds like you need to coalesce your navigation logic into one place. You can take a few approaches for this:

    1. Use C# events. In each Page subclass expose C# events for things like "the user wants to go to this page", and then when you create that page you attach an event handler that is responsible for doing the actual navigation.
    2. Use something like MessageCenter and have the Page subclass send a message saying "the user wants to go to this page", and then subscribe to those messages in one place to do the actual navigation.

    Both of these are just approaches for decoupling your pages from the navigation logic. That allows you to place your navigation logic in one place that has direct access to, say, the MasterDetailPage or the right NavigationPage to use, and it keeps your individual pages from having to care about how exactly the navigation takes places. You could even change your whole navigation scheme later if needed without changing those pages at all.

  3. Excellent blog!. Lot of my confusions are cleared! Thanks Adam