The Usability Blog
A Practical Guide to User Experience Insights

Back Me Up

According to Jakob Nielsen, “The Back button is the lifeline of the Web user and the second-most used navigation feature (after following hypertext links). Users happily know that they can try anything on the Web and always be saved by a click or two on Back to return them to familiar territory.” Although Nielsen gave us that insight several years ago, our studies show time and time again that this statement still rings just as true now as it did then. Users consistently use their browser’s Back button to navigate a website, and they have clearly defined expectations of where the Back button should take them. When the Back button doesn’t work as they expect, they become visibly frustrated and often experience difficulties with how to return to their desired page. There are several instances we’ve seen of how the browser’s Back button deviates from users’ expectations. Frustrating situations regarding the Back button

  1. The Back button returns users to the same page they’re currently viewing Upon clicking the Back button, certain sites keep users on the page they were already viewing, thus preventing them from actually going back a page.
  2. The Back button goes back more that one “page” When a site uses a technology like Flash, clicking the browser’s Back button often does not take users back “one full page” in terms of what users consider to be one full page. Instead, the Back button often takes users to the beginning of a process or to a main page. We recently tested a real estate site that was developed using Flash technology. When looking for homes for sale, users went through several steps: 1) they entered their desired location, 2) selected their preferred home criteria, 3) reviewed the resulting home listings, and 4) selected a particular home to view more details. What did they do when they were done looking at that home and wanted to return to their result set? Of course, they clicked the Back button. Instead of taking them to their result set as they expected, the Back button returned users to the Homepage and lost all of their search criteria, forcing them to start over from the beginning.
  3. There is no Back button When a site opens a new window that allows for hyperlink navigation, it often does not provide any forward or backward navigation options. If users can navigate forward by clicking hyperlinks, they will always need a way to navigate backwards through their steps via either the browser’s navigation or the site’s custom navigation.

The recommendation is to ensure that your site allows users to navigate backwards one full page at a time. If possible, allow the browser’s Back button to do this work. However, if your site uses a technology where it is not possible to control the browser’s Back button in a way that is intuitive to users, or if the browser’s navigation is non-existent, the site must provide its own navigation – prominent and well labeled- that will allow users to step backward through the process.

-Katie Eubanks – Sr. Usability Analyst


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