Learn to like the Back buttonPosted January 26th, 2009 by David Hamill
We use the Back button all the time, often without noticing. As soon as we realise we’ve taken a wrong turn, we reach for the Back button. However the Back button has long been regarded by web designers as the user’s crutch. As though it is only used to help them get out situations caused by bad design.
Accept that your users love the Back button. Think of your user as your best friend and the Back button is their new girlfriend. You’re going to need to learn to get along.
It gives the user control
Most of your users are going to take an indirect route to the content they need. It’s best if you just accept this to be the case, because it’ll happen even on the best designs. Your users will test theories by seeing what’s behind certain links. They know that when it’s not the right one, they can hit the Back button and try again.
To support this behaviour, you need to make sure that each page on your site has a purpose and that purpose is obvious at a few seconds glance. This is as much about saying “You’ve found it” to the person who has, as it is about saying “Go back” to the person who took a wrong turn.
Don’t break it
You’re bound to have heard this advice before, but I’ll say it again. Don’t break the Back button without a very good reason. That reason should be a clear benefit to the user and not the cool feature you’re trying to introduce.
These days lots of sites use AJAX or Dynamic HTML (face it, that’s what it is) as I prefer to think of it. AJAX can be used to enhance the user experience in many places. But it’s also over-used in the same way that Flash was a while back.
When using AJAX, you need to be very careful about how the user will perceive the new data you’re loading. It can often appear to them that they’re on a new page. This is usually because AJAX has been used in a situation where the humble page-load would have been better.
If the user thinks a new screen has loaded, they will use their Back button to reverse out of it. So don’t mess with it.
It’s not a signal of failure
Don’t be afraid to create designs that sometimes call for the user to reach for the Back button. One of the arguments for expanding menus is that they allow the user to cross-navigate when they realise they’ve gone down the wrong route. In actual fact, despite your careful attempts to allow them these options, most of the time they hit the Back button anyway.
Attempting to create situations that provide alternatives for the Back button is often a waste of effort. So when you’re next in a design meeting and someone asks ‘How does the user get out of that page?’ Just reply with “they’ll use their Back button’. It’s true, regardless of what you try to do.