Do you use your back button?

Patrick Dubroy suspects you don’t.

Today he spoke at Mozilla about his very interesting research and field studies regarding how people use tabs in Firefox. He found that people who don’t use tabs really aren’t using the back button much – his participants’ median was once per 50 clicks, and that the more tabs a user opens the less they use the back button.

This really gives voice to some of the thoughts I was having about how the back button and tabs are related. In a sense, the back button is allowing you to go back in history blindly – there’s no way (other than remembering) to know where pressing back will take you. Opening new pages in tabs, however, give you a visual indicator of where you’d been, and allows you to skip backwards in time as far as you need. It can also prevent procrastination by showing you what you were doing (“Right, I was answering an email before I opened 5 Wikipedia pages”).

Another problematic relation between tabs and the back button, as Patrick pointed out, is that your 10 open tabs may all have different back histories. How can you possibly be expected to remember all 10 histories? You can’t, and if you have 10 tabs you probably aren’t using back much as a result.

Another problem of the back button is that it doesn’t work with all media (such as Flash sites) and sucks with web applications (like Google documents). I’ve been trapped many times by accidentally pressing back while banking or using a form, only to find that my data has been lost. These sites tend to offer their own navigation methods.

So, what tabs and the back button have in common is that they are ways to manage browsing histories. Tabs may have made an improvement on the back button, but they still present some navigation limitations.

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  1. Once per 50 clicks is still a far amount of usage, I think, given how much clicking the average web page requires. Also, I think remembering is unnecessary–usually I use the back button on the tab that I’m on currently, or I use the little drop-down menu to see where I’m going in my history.


  2. RyanVM says:

    I rarely use the in-browser back button. I do use the back button on my mouse all the time.

  3. sep332 says:

    I actually find myself missing the “back” functionality across tabs. I try to go back only to realize I’m in a “new” tab and can’t get back to where I came from. I would use the History instead of Back if the history wasn’t so linear and time-based. It should show the path you took to get to each page currently open in a tab.

  4. Walter K says:

    Back button in an important browsing instrument of an experienced internet user. While tabs allow to compartmentalize one’s browsing by topics or have a throw-away item of reading, Back button allows easily to re-trace the steps that lead to the current page.

    In my opinion, only caring forward the history from the original (source) tab into the new tab can be a valid item for the discussion. Any other arbitrary “enhancements” to the Back button would make this otherwise straight forward feature cumbersome to use and understand.

  5. Alex Faaborg says:

    During Patrick’s talk I was thinking about how tabs and the back button are indeed both ways to go backward in your chain of navigation, but one is based on recognition, and the other is based on recall. Which leads to the question, what would a recognition-based back button look like?

  6. I rarely ever use the Back button on the toolbar – I prefer to use the right-click menu or Alt-Left Arrow (or Cmd-[ ) on the few occasions that I actually go back. I’m probably in the minority, as I use mostly use tabs in lieu of going back, and I have pretty good spatial memory (as such, I loathe any change to tab switching).

  7. Aki Sasaki says:

    I use my back button quite a bit. Even more when you include command-left arrow… I tend to open new tabs for new sites, new thought processes, or if I’m not done with the page I’m on, rather than opening a new tab for every new page I want to go to.

    The home button, however… I’m not sure when I last used that. Command-K, smart keywords, the awesomebar, and being able to keep important tabs around have pretty much rendered it useless to me.

  8. I use the back button all the time, for example, after I submit this comment I’m going back to where ever I was before…

  9. Chris says:

    You wouldn’t need the back button if every hyperlink opened in a new tab.

    It would be very interesting to run this as an experiment, perhaps by spending an hour or so only ever clicking with the middle mouse button. What kind of tab management techniques & tools would you need?

  10. i don’t!
    that little down arrow next to the back/fwd buttons on my mac firefox is the one helping me look where i’ve been.

  11. Robert O'Callahan says:

    Maybe we should present history as a stack of tabs. That would help unify the mental model and allow operations like dragging a tab out of history.

  12. Simon says:

    I use both tabs and back button extensively. Tabs for me are a way of having separate sites open at the same time, while the back button (and less so, forward) is useful for navigating within a site.

    I understand the idea of opening a link in a new tab and then closing it as a means of going back, but it’s not a model I use often – mentally, it’s not what I think of tabs as being for.

  13. David says:

    Chris: Your experiment is actually very similar to my actual behaviour! Let me describe:

    Whenever I see a link I want to read, I open it in a new background tab. This has several advantages. First, as Boriss pointed out, this makes your history more visual. Second, I can continue to read the current tab without losing my focus. Lastly, this prevents the cognitive dissonance that I get when left-clicking on a link: the tab becomes nearly useless while it transitions from one page to the next. This isn’t just a distraction, but a complete waste of time. Interestingly, the only case where I usually don’t middle-click is in web applications (such as Gmail, where links usually point to link fragments, rather than to new pages), since most of these issues don’t apply there.

    So, when I’m done with a page, if I don’t need it any more, I just close that tab. If I’ll need it later, I leave it open and I switch to the next tab. If I’ve opened one or more tabs from that page, I now read those (and Tabs Open Relative ensures that the first spawned tab is always the next tab). If I want to go back to the page I came from, I can always use the Back button (because Tab History ensures that my history is always retained in new tabs). However, I rarely actually need to go back, since I never leave a page unless I’m done with it.

    I recently noticed that I’m middle-clicking more and more, even if I’m done with a page and there is only one link that I want to follow. If I find something else on the original page while the new one is loading in a background tab, I’ll still be able to use the page. Besides, I hate feeling forced to wait during the page transition and the tab becomes useless.

    The “cognitive dissonance” problem needs to be solved. My suggestion would be to make each new page appear right below the current page, a la Google Reader’s display of news items, or Bret Victor’s Scrolltabs mock-up. Not only would this make one’s history much more visual (and recognition-based, as Alex might say), it would solve the other issues I described as well, and it would make going back much more useful. It might even solve the “too many tabs” problem (as the need to open links in new tabs all the time would be reduced).

    For some reason, I was under the impression that some early browsers open links in new windows. Anyone know if that’s correct?

  14. Tom says:

    From Patrick Dubroy’s post: “The badge-with-selected-text behaviour can be incredibly annoying (e.g. Snap previews)…”

    I wonder who else might be using this incredibly annoying feature *cough*JBoriss*cough*?

  15. Glad to hear people are interested in this. So far, I’ve only done some very basic analysis. I’ll be publishing more detailed analysis soon.

    Just a few clarifications…

    For everyone, I’d just like to clarify that when I said “back button”, I actually instrumented nsISHistoryListener::OnHistoryGoBack, so that includes the back button, Ctrl-left, and (I believe) any other similar shortcuts.

    @Boriss: “He found that people who don’t use tabs really aren’t using the back button much”

    I think you mean that people who DO use tabs aren’t using the back button much — at least that’s what I meant to say today. In general, people who use tabs more seem to use the back button less. Although, it doesn’t seem to be precise, inverse relation between the two. As someone pointed out during my talk today, there are some reasons why using tabs *more* might also be correlated more use of the back button.

    @Alex Faaborg: That’s a good point. I’ve got an idea for a short-term history mechanism that would be more recognition based — I’ll try to post something on my blog soon.

  16. Sam says:

    I use tabs all the time, as it’s a great way to separate out things I’m working on; but the back button still remains useful and I hate it when it’s not there. Having had the chance to observe lots of non-technical users browsing as well, I can report from my own experience that the back button is one of the few browser features they regularly make use of.

  17. Jon says:

    As somebody who develops Javascript heavy sites with lots of Ajax calls I find the back button to be a real annoyance.

    The back button was designed well before the advent of Ajax applications and Flash/Silverlight and there is no way of disabling it. I think this needs to change.

  18. djc says:

    I agree with sep223: with tabs, I have less opportunity to use the Back button, because it’s disabled quite often. There have been times when I wished that Back in a new tab would know about the history of the parent tab…

  19. tqft says:

    Jesse Ruderman once upon a time had an extension called “How I Got Here” or some such – showed you how you got the page you are on.

    Something like that functionality lurking under the drop down on the back button for when you open a link in a new tab – if page is still open closes current and takes you.

    I use back button when my mouse decides to paste contents in url bar and off current page I go. I decide I should have clicked a different google search result or opened something else instead. Going back to google search results is big use of Back button for me.

  20. Luis says:

    I’d certainly use the back button more if it actually worked properly in new tabs. (Why yes, I am irritated that this plugin needs to exist.)

  21. @Sam: You’re right, and I actually find in my study that the less-technical users used tabs less and used the back button a lot more.

    But, I also got lots of insight into why people prefer to use tabs instead of the back button. For example:

    – “it’s just easier” or “less annoying” than the back button
    – the visual aspect of tabs is nice: you see what you want, and click on it
    – tabs give you a visible browsing history, whereas the back button list is invisible (unless you count the dropdown, and do novice users use that?)
    – you don’t know how long it will take to get to a page using the back button
    – with tabs, you can open a new tab and do a lot of browsing, and be confident that you won’t lose what you were doing before

    So, even if novice users are not using tabs that much, and are using the back button a lot more, maybe we should look at these reasons, and use them to create a revisitation mechanism that’s as simple as the back button, but that also addresses some of these issues.

  22. Tim says:

    I use tabs and the back button all the time. A tragic flaw with tabs is that they lose context when you open links in new tabs. I therefore use a “back to referrer” bookmarklet all the time, which generally gets me back where I came from. It would be helpful if tabs keep the history of the opening tab.

  23. Havvy says:

    The back button is crucial to navigating the web in a useful manner. While opening new links in tabs is useful, like when I cannot focus on one thing, but can on four, and while it can keep websites up you do not want to forget, the back button is crucial. It allows a person to get past 404 errors, or to go back to an initial state on some websites where you might go two or three levels in once per day, and start back at the same spot with ease.

    I use it as an error maintenance system (the web-equiv of undo) and a go-back-to-start system. I also use it when I want to know which browser is being used on a Mac, Safari or FF (thanks UI guys).

  24. David says:

    Luis makes a good point: perhaps the reason why tab-browsing power users use ‘Back’ so rarely is because, over time, they have learned that it’s usually unavailable to them. If context were always preserved, they might, over time, learn to rely on it again.

    For anyone who hasn’t seen them yet, Patrick’s slides are fascinating.

    @Jon: The Back button is even more important in web applications, since it’s usually much faster than opening up new tabs. Gmail is a great example of this. I use the Back button on there all the time (unlike my behaviour on the rest of the web). Instead of fighting with your users, you should be helping them by making the Back button useful on your site.

  25. Nathar Leichoz says:

    I use the MileWideBack extension to provide back functionality.

  26. For anyone who wasn’t at the talk, I just put up a much more detailed post on my blog. I posted all of the slides, along with a some notes which cover pretty much everything I talked about.

    Boriss, it would be great if you could update the links. Thanks.

  27. voracity says:

    I often use tabs in lieu of the back button because, quite frankly, the back button in Firefox is still glitchy. Specifically, the back button: 1) often reloads the page (tabs never do that); 2) often loses the scroll position on the page (tabs never do that); and 3) even when a reload doesn’t occur, the page still jumps and flickers (tabs never do that).

    Fix those, and I’d cut down my tab usage by 50%. I promise.

  28. For anyone who’s interested in the revisitation studies that I mentioned, I found a good summary here:

  29. Vivian Frazier says:

    Who the heck is Patrick Dubroy anyway to make a statement like the “back” button is of little use. I would like it back please. Thanks.

  30. their are something happen por damage

  31. jschmede says:

    I like the back button and would use it all the time except I found now that when I press “Back” I am only taken to the top of the page. And if I press it again, nothing happens. It never seems to work correctly anymore, all I want is easy access to where I came from without having to retype the URL to get there.

    • jboriss says:

      jschmede –

      It’s a classic problem of the modern internets that back won’t always help you if you’re navigating within a site… but sometimes it will. The difference is how the page is written, and a myriad of complexities users don’t care about and can’t see.

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