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There are numerous of evidence around us where forward and backward directions are predetermined. As if they are a conscious choice we all know. At least this in true in left-to-right reading countries, which is the first example.

We read and write from left to right, and going backward in a text would be to move to the left. Moving forward in a text is the opposite direction (naturally) moving right.

The same pattern is shown on e-mailing systems (and icons). Replying to a message is clear to us since the arrow point to the left means "back to sender" and an arrow pointing right means "forward to another user". GMail, Microsoft Outlook and icon search for reply and forward give the same result. Left is going back - right is moving forward.

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The third example is the media player control. Again left for back and right for moving forward.

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But where did it all start in the design of buttons and controls representing backward (reply) and forward? Was it a concious design choice in User Experience Design to make these back and forward directions - or was it just coincidence?

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I understand that reading left-right and right-left top-down differs across cultures, but, do directions also differ as such? I was under the impression that forward and backward were sort-of universal and tape recorders and other music gadgets were using the terminology (right = fwd and left = bkwd) before the web/computer interfaces adopted them. –  rk. Mar 20 '13 at 19:32
@rk. You're probably right since we had tape recorders before the web - but was that before User Centered Design (even if it had another name back then)? –  Benny Skogberg Mar 20 '13 at 19:38
Well, let's look at the founding fathers (:P) of the related disciplines: Human Computer Interaction - Stu Card & other around 1983(1975), Interaction design - Bill Moggridge and Bill Verplank around 1985, Human/User Centered Design - Don Norman(?) with his Design of everyday things 1986. And from a random search on wikipedia Phillips casette player with fwd and bkwd buttons (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compact_Cassette) 1968 –  rk. Mar 20 '13 at 19:51
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3 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

A conversation happens in time.

Person 1 (P1) starts a conversation, the second person (P2) replies to what the first said (in the past) and then asks a third person (P3) what they think (in the future):


download bmml source – Wireframes created with Balsamiq Mockups

When Person 2 replies, they are replying to something that was said in the past.

When Person 2 asks (forwards) the original question to the third person (P3), they are creating a new point in the timeline by asking for a reply that P3 may make in the future.

Person 3's reply is going to reference everything that has been said to date, which on a timeline would be to the left.

A reply is making something that was said in the past the subject. A forward is making something that might be said in the future the subject.

Thinking of the communication chain chronologically, it makes sense to have "reply" represented by an arrow pointing to the left (past) and "forward" pointing to the right (future).

This model is supported by the media player example, as the controls indicate whether you would like to move to a point in time that is before or after the current position.

Representing time left-to-right (LR), however, is culturally specific to the direction of written language.

While time is an abstract concept, studies have shown that people tend to use spacial concepts to represent time ("spatial timelines, clocks, sundials, hourglasses, and calendars"). These representations, even if conceptual, are always within the context of written language:

In three studies, we find that speakers of different languages organize the domain of time differently. In both explicit and implicit measures, English speakers (who read from left to right) associate earlier events with the left side of space, while Hebrew speakers (who read from right to left) associate earlier events with the right side. Our results demonstrate that people automatically access culturally specific spatial representations when reasoning about time even in entirely nonlinguistic contexts. Written languages appear to organize their readers’ attention in a vector from where text usually begins to where it usually ends.

Another study concludes:

More broadly, it seems that writing system orientation is an idiosyncratic linguistic characteristic that can have an impact on our cognitive system in general, like other linguistic features that have relativistic effects. The details of a language – in this case an apparently superficial feature of how people in a given culture interact with its written form, seems to shape the way that people think about something totally unrelated.

Because a conversation is a chronological chain where the subject of conversation is either in the past or requests a response which has not yet occurred, and because modern technology is heavily influenced by Western culture (primarily English language), the representation of time follows the left-to-right pattern dominant in that culture.

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+1 Love the image when you can reply from the future to the past. I need that, a lot! –  Benny Skogberg Mar 20 '13 at 20:39
But seriously, this is on track to what I was aiming for. Superb answer! Thanks @Charles! –  Benny Skogberg Mar 20 '13 at 20:46
A short answer turned into an enlightening turn of research for me, so thank you for asking a good question! –  Charles Wesley Mar 20 '13 at 20:48
Agree. Quite an insightful answer Charles! –  rk. Mar 20 '13 at 20:50
The whole point of the concept of time is that it runs in one direction. Your double arrow at the bottom makes it a bit confusing... –  André Jul 1 '13 at 9:40
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Reading direction.

The original media controls were developed by a Swedish engineer named Philip Olsson while working in Japan. Both modern Japanese and Swedish read from left to right, as do most languages. So left was used to indicated backwards, and right to indicate forwards.

There is arguably also the additional concept in many languages (e.g. English, French, Russian) of the word for correct or good being the same word as the direction 'right' and the word for odd or strange being the same word for the direction 'left'. So pointing right has yet another concept of moving on.

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+1 That was enlighting! I didn't know that 'right' also had an actual meaning of correct. –  Benny Skogberg Mar 20 '13 at 19:55
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I believe the media directional are descended from cassette tape players, in which the arrows point to the direction the tape would move over the head. Video tape players followed this convention (it would have been confusing not to), later compact disc players adopted the arrow language, and now those arrow symbols are well engrained in the electronic users world.

The email directional I'd guess are just evidence of the left-to-right reading bias of earlier computing systems, and not related to media controls.

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I doubt your explanation. Do you have some evidence to back up your claim that the arrows point in the direction the tape would move? That would suggest that for different designs (tape cassette inserted with the tape down vs tape up) you'd end up with different arrow directions on devices. I have not seen that anywhere. Also, I think the symbols predate the cassette tape players. AFAIK, the big tape reels are older, and also feature similar buttons. –  André Jul 1 '13 at 9:44
@André When the cassette is right-side-up (the orientation is obvious from the writing on the case), the tape moves from the left to the right in a unidirectional player. In every cassette player I've seen with the symbol set in question, the arrows indicate the direction of movement (it would be absurd if that weren't the case). The symbol set might have originated on the open reel tape machines, only a vague memory tells me it was introduced with cassettes. –  obelia Jul 2 '13 at 15:21
I've owned cassette tape players of both types: tape up and tape down. And yes, I labeled the tapes in the way the player I owned at that time was oriented. –  André Jul 2 '13 at 19:04
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