Is the browsers back button our report card showing an F (most cases)?

29 Dec 2010 - 6:06pm
5 years ago
4 replies
1942 reads

To put it simply (and a bit overly simplified), if a user clicks on the browsers back button I think the website navigation has suffered a catastrophic failure (in most cases). Why? Apart from user preference/habit (most cases) the user was forced to end their engagement with the website and engage the browser. Is the browsers back button our report card showing an F (most cases)?


30 Dec 2010 - 2:57am
Yohan Creemers

Great theses! Never thought of it that way and for sure something to keep in mind when designing a site navigation.

If a user finds the back button the only resort to get back on track, then the site navigation fails indeed. In many cases however the site visitor doesn't have a clear formulated question or goal. Just diving into the information and using the back button to trace back can help clarifying what he is looking for. The back button provides an additional way of navigating (bread crumbs navigation) to the hierarchical / logical / topic based navigation provided by the menus and hyperlinks in the website.

- Yohan

1 Jan 2011 - 12:10pm
Davin Granroth

Hi aZippel4iD, nice question.

While that is something to keep in mind when designing (and evaluating) a navigation system, I disagree with the statement: "if a user clicks on the browsers back button I think the website navigation has suffered a catastrophic failure."

Here are two aspects that I disagree on.

1. Using the back button is not catastrophic. It's an excellent way for a site visitor to recover from starting down a path that won't get them where they want to go. I actually consider it normal, since it is one of the main ways site visitors can choose to undo their last quickly made navigation impulse (likely satisficed). As Yohan wrote, it helps the visitor clarify what he is looking for.

What would indicate a failure is that if the website has the information being sought, but users regularly give up or get frustrated before finding it. Or, if the person tries the back button, but the technology of the website has broken the functionality of the back button. That's when our report card shows an F.

2. Your site visitors' experiences are not solely based on what your website offers. There are other factors that should be acknowledged beyond what your website offers. The person's motivations, state of mind, past experiences, computer, and software are all factors. Haven't you ever seen a participant in a usability test ask if they can just Google for the answer or call for the help of a family member? Is that a slam on your website design or is it an indication of the user's normal behavior? (Or both.)

My point is that the notion that a person should only use my website's navigation tools to find my site's content seems to me to put my product on a pedstal above the user. Of course we've all done that, but isn't it a mistake in thinking? I hope the back button in their browsers serves them well. I hope our content is well-indexed by seach engines so it becomes more findable, even from external sources. And of course I really hope our navigation and site search do their jobs as well.


12 Jan 2011 - 4:38am

If I understood the original post correctly it was a point about the back button being the only option. Users relying on it for general navigation is fine, if it's their natural behavior. But as soon as you're forcing the user into an unnatural behavior change you have failed in your design.

In essence, the user should always be able to navigate both with the browser back button and the webpage nav itself.

I find that Android apps create an interesting counter point to this. Here I feel that if you do not rely on the phone's built in back button, that is the failure.

6 Jan 2011 - 12:05pm

I tend to agree with Davin's points.  I do think that very few sites are capable of handling the back button well if used within the confines of browsing their sites.  That's especially true with ajax and dynamically loaded content.  If you hit the back button inside a page where navigation is taking place using ajax, and not moving between pages, almost every time you're going to lose all of the internal page navigation history.  Same goes for refresh.  Flash and Silverlight pages suffer this as well.  I've seen people attempt to handle this problem by starting out with redirecting the user to a second page.  What this does is effectively make the back button go back to the redirect page, which sends you back to the same page you came from. While this can help with keeping the continuity of your site going, it's VERY irritating when you really do want to get out of the site and go back to your google search.  This behavior has caused me to start opening all search results in new tabs instead of using the back button, which is an annoying work around for what should be expected browser behavior. 

I guess what it boils down to is that the browser is a tool we use to get to information we want.  The information shouldn't be considered a failure if it turns out we used the tool to get the wrong information. 

Syndicate content Get the feed