How to gesture your way around your Android phone

Buttons are being phased out, but we'll help you get ahead of the game.

hand holding android phone
A tiny gesture might get you a long way.Tinh Khuong via Unsplash

Android is phasing out its traditional triple-button navigation system for a more iPhone-like gesture control approach. But we're now in a time of transition—which means you're likely to have a few choices when it comes to getting around your Android phone.

Although Google is definitely keen on moving Android toward gestures, there's no right or wrong approach—just the one you're most comfortable with. You should be aware of the options available, and how they work, so you can figure out which one is best for you.

How you find these options will vary depending on the make and model of your phone, but they shouldn't be too difficult to find. On Pixel phones, for example, open up Settings, then pick System, Gestures, and System navigation. If you get stuck, a quick web search for your particular handset should tell you where the relevant options are.

The classic three-button navigation

diagram of hand navigating android phone with three buttons
Physical or on the screen, the 3-buttons have become an Android classic.Android

This is the way Android has worked for several years now—first with three physical buttons and then more recently (as bezels have shrunk) with three software buttons displayed on the screen itself.

Most of the time, those three buttons are, from left to right in stock Android: Back, Home, and the oddly named Overview. Some flavors of Android, including Samsung's, let you change the order of these buttons, but the principles are always the same.

This is perhaps the easiest option because you don't have any gestures to learn. The Back button goes back, the Home button goes to the main home screen (on some phones you can hold it down to launch the Google Assistant), and the Overview button will show you apps you've used lately and let you switch between them—double-tap it to jump between the current app and the previously used one, and back again. To see all your apps, swipe up on the Home button.

Having buttons, however, means they take up a chunk of screen space at the bottom of the phone, or the screen must shrink to accommodate them. This system has served Android well, but we're now seeing it phased out, certainly as far as stock Android goes.

Go halfway with two-button navigation

diagram of hand navigating android phone with two buttons
If you can't decide between buttons and gestures, you might want to try the two-button approach.Android

This approach was introduced in Android 9 Pie in 2018, and you can think of it as a middle ground between the old and new navigation systems in Android. It's not available on many phones, but it does appear on the Pixel devices if you don't want to go all-in on either buttons or gestures.

The Back button keeps its place, but the Home button turns into a smaller pill shape, and the Overview button disappears completely. To get to the screen of recent apps, you need to flick up quickly and then release on the Home button—if you keep swiping up without releasing, you get to the full app drawer.

Quickly tapping the Home button will bring you to the main home screen, and pressing and holding it will launch the Google Assistant on compatible phones (including the Google Pixel). Swipe right quickly and briefly on the Home button to switch between your two most recent apps (the same as double-tapping the Overview button). The Back button works as it always has, taking you back to the previous screen, whether that's in the current app or a different one.

This approach is an intuitive blend of buttons and gestures, and you save a little bit more room on screen with two buttons rather than three.

The all-new Gesture navigation

diagram of hand navigating android phone with no buttons
Want to go button-less? Gesture navigation is for you.Android

If you want to forgo buttons altogether, then you can pick gesture navigation. Your apps will take over the entire screen, with a floating bar at the bottom, iOS-style. Tap the cog icon next to Gesture navigation to alter its sensitivity, in case it's interfering with other swipes used by the apps you're running.

In this mode, you briefly swipe up from the bottom of the screen to go back to the home screen, or swipe up and then hold your finger in the center of the screen to get to your recent apps list (the gesture equivalent of the old Overview button). On the home screen, swipe up from either the bottom left or bottom right corner to access Google Assistant (if it's enabled on your device).

To go back, swipe in from the left or the right-hand edge of the screen. Here gesture navigation might interfere with other gestures used by your apps, so you might want to adjust the sensitivity to get everything working properly. If you're getting the back swipes right, arrows will appear at the side of the screen.

This is the mode that gives you most screen space to work with, though it might take you a while to get used to it. Gesture navigation is the direction Google wants to push Android, so other options might not be available or as easily accessible in future updates.

Other navigation options

hand holding samsung phone
Different Android phones have different options, so your device might provide you with even more alternatives.Samsung

Those three options will be available to you on some handsets (like the Pixel phones after an Android 10 update), but you might only get two, or some variation on them, depending on the manufacturer of your device and the version of Android you're running.

If you have a recent OnePlus phone with the latest version of OxygenOS, for instance, you can head to Buttons & gestures from Settings, then choose Navigation bar & gestures. You get three options again, but they have different names: Back, Home, Recents (3-button navigation), Back, Home (2-button navigation), and Navigation gestures.

In the case of Samsung handsets, open up Settings then choose Display and Navigation bar. You only get two options here—the three-button navigation or gesture navigation—but you can change the order of the buttons and swap the Back and Overview buttons around if needed.

Older versions of Android, including Android 9 Pie, may just offer you two- and three-button navigation, but again it depends on the make and model of your phone. Gesture navigation support will be officially introduced with Android 10, so look out for future updates on your handset.