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I am re-designing a multi-page web form that currently contains 'back' and 'continue' buttons.

I am wondering -- is the 'back' button necessary? If the user wants to go back, they will know to use the back button on the browser (which works in this case -- I am aware that on some forms it doesn't).

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Do your users actually use the back button? What data do you have from user testing? I think this could go both ways. –  Loren Rogers Sep 13 '12 at 14:47
    
@LorenRogers I have not got to user testing stage yet for this particular form. I am just at initial wireframing. But in general user testing I have seen that users rely on the browser's Back button. As Jakob Nielsen says 'Users happily know that they can try anything on the Web and always be saved by a click or two on Back': useit.com/alertbox/990530.html –  Michael Heraghty Sep 13 '12 at 17:06
    
It's my belief that moderately-savvy web users have been habituated not to use the back button for multi-step webforms. I rarely trust it myself. As @Matt Obee mentions, whether or not it works depends on your form validation routines, which the users don't know anything about. I'd leave it in for good measure and A/B test. –  msanford Sep 13 '12 at 17:08
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up vote 8 down vote accepted

I personally always expect 'back' buttons on multi-page form processes. Having a button to move forwards without the equivalent control to move backwards is disconcerting. As you note, the browser back button won't always work with forms, so some people are nervous about using it.

You'd also be surprised (as I was the other day when presented with the results of a user testing session) how many users don't use their browser back button. They expect to find a link within the page.

One potential issue with form processes is how you handle validation when a user clicks your 'back' button. If they have modified fields on the current page, do you save that data? If they have not yet completed all mandatory fields, do you force them to complete those fields before allowing them to go back?

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Sometimes I click the back button because the on-page button forces validation. On the other hand, sometimes the browser allows me back, but only (I later discover) at the cost of losing data. But how does the user know which is 'the right' back button to click? At least eliminating the on-page button removes the choice. In your user test session, when users didn't find a back link, did they still not use the browser's back? That would surprise me. –  Michael Heraghty Sep 13 '12 at 17:14
    
This particular user group tended to ask the moderator for advice when they couldn't find the button. I'm not sure how much help they were given or what they would have done had they been on their own. I'm sure they wouldn't have sat paralysed for long. I suspect this nervousness is more prevalent when in the middle of a process, rather than browsing normal pages. –  Matt Obee Sep 13 '12 at 19:00
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@michael heraghty You can give the user an easy hint in the wording of your "back" button. If you call it i.e."back to address fields", they recognize its not the same as a browser back (and delete) button. –  FrankL Sep 14 '12 at 13:03
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