The Back Button and Inconsistent Tendencies

There have been a number of posts lately about Android’s hardware back button, but they have, so far, missed the key issue. Basically, user behavior around the back button is inconsistent.

At ‘Food on the Table’, I have watched nearly a hundred people use our product on Android and iPhone (both live in person, and through One of the things that I’m constantly surprised by is how inconsistent user behavior is around the hardware back button. Some users will immediately jump back whenever they get somewhere unfamiliar. Others will just continue going deeper and deeper, always looking for some onscreen indication of where to go next, until they finally “give up” and tap the back button (“Well, I don’t know what to do here, so I guess I’ll just go back now”). While still others will get deep into the app and simply give up (“No idea what I should do now”).

I think one user put it best, “I don’t like to use the back button. It makes me feel like I’m failing. I like going forward in life”.

That’s a pretty incredible statement given that the entire design of the Android operating system sort of depends on you understanding how the back button works. To have three subtly different ways of looking at the same control is certainly not a good thing.

This sentiment has been echoed in some form or another by about 50% of our Android users. Whats more, in A/B tests where we exposed additional on screen controls for getting “back” to previous screens, we saw significant improvements in users “getting around”. However, when we ran these very same experiments on the iPhone, there was little or no improvement. iPhone users already know how to get around, they don’t need additional cues.

Takeaway for me: design for the least common denominator. Always have onscreen buttons for navigation. You cannot assume that users will understand the back button. I can assure you, they do not.