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When using a browser, like Firefox, I appreciate that I can easily navigate my tab history with Alt+ (for back) and Alt+ (for forward.) That makes perfectly good sense to me, and I've used that keyboard shortcut for the longest time.

I frequently do text input in web pages. On some pages (but not all) when I want to erase the last few characters I just typed, I tap Backspace several times. Tap tap tap. And then, lo-and-behold, my browser is leaving the page I was on and going back in the tab history. I may have lost what I was writing. And I am a very unhappy user.

Why did browser creators think this is such a great feature? Alt+ is unambiguous. But to overload the Backspace key with this behavior is atrocious! I can see from a quick Google search that many others are frustrated by this.

  • How did this come about?
  • Is the standard default behavior too strongly established to reverse course?
  • Can we change it, and what would be the plan to do so?

Edit:

I'll be logging the canonical ways to turn this off for browsers here, and I do not want to see software add-ons here:

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3  
This blog entry by Jeff atwood would also apply: blog.codinghorror.com/the-opposite-of-fitts-law and it seems discussed a great deal in this chromium bug report: code.google.com/p/chromium/issues/detail?id=144832 but I'm not qualified enough for it to be time-effective for me to attempt to answer. –  Aaron Hall Feb 28 at 19:43
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That bug report is very interesting! It is almost a usability test report in itself! :) –  Evil Closet Monkey Feb 28 at 19:46
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@AaronHall, I'm assuming your ire is directed at the article rather than me for trying to help you. As the article states, Firefox does not require any additional installs. –  Peter Feb 28 at 20:05
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I don't understand. Backspace never goes back a page when the focus is on a textfield, such as a textbox, address bar etc. This behaviour is the same even in Windows Explorer. As long as Backspace is constrained to a textfield, you can go on pressing it, and the browser/window will never leave the current page. Morever, you never type when your focus is not in a text field, so the overloading of the backspace is perfectly justified. –  SNag Mar 21 at 18:05
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@AaronHall: Thanks. I would like that. One clarification though: When you say "you wanted to erase the last few characters you just typed, and hit backspace several times and had the browser leaving the page", where exactly were the characters you were trying to erase? In a textbox on the page? Or was it the URL in the address bar? If yes, how then did backspace perform page-back? I tried in Firefox, and no matter how many times I hit backspace in the address bar or a texbox, the page stays fixed (even after I've emptied the textfield). –  SNag Mar 21 at 18:18

4 Answers 4

up vote 25 down vote accepted
+25

I don't know how it started but I can add my two cents about what ALL my clients say:

$%!$% what the @$#%#% just happened? Why did the page change? Now I have to fill in that form all over again.

I would love to see this go away for good, and the first thing I do when building a form laden website is the following jQuery script:

var hasfocus = 'false';

// when focus happens, set a variable
$(document).on('focusin','input, textarea',function() {
    hasfocus = 'true';
    });

// unset when focus is not happening    
$(document).on('focusout','input, textarea',function() {
    hasfocus = 'false';
    });

// if not in a form field, stop backspace and delete default action
$(document).keypress(function (e) {
    if(e.which == 8 || e.which == 46) {
        if(hasfocus == 'false') {
            e.preventDefault();
           }
       }
    });
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2  
I would love to see how other people handle this in javascript without jQuery too. And I have used this code for years with no complaint, but if there is a better way I am all ears :) –  pathfinder Mar 22 at 2:27
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StackOverflow would be the place to provide this type of answer. In fact, artificially capturing the backspace key and altering its behavior is poor UX. The user should not have to relearn what a certain key does on your web site versus every other website. –  Evil Closet Monkey Mar 22 at 3:11
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I think a lot of heavily used sites that are very focused on user experience are actually doing this. –  Aaron Hall Mar 22 at 4:23
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hey closet monkey, as my answer states, not one of my clients (or users) knows the backspace is supposed to do that, so I am actually making the UX be what they expect. In fact, not one of the people filling out a form and actually unfocusing from the text field wants to go back a page and lose all the data they just input. It is especially painful on a joomla or wordpress site when you spent an hour writing an article and accidentally do this. –  pathfinder Mar 22 at 4:31
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plus I stop my users from cursing at their computers, so I would expect that the user experience for them is greatly enhanced :) –  pathfinder Mar 22 at 5:44

What We Know So Far:

The first browser did not use Backspace to go back a page:

Several Mosaic menu or button functions have keyboard equivalents. Among them:

b, equivalent to the Back button

Source: http://www.uoxray.uoregon.edu/local/manuals/biosym/discovery/Html_Help/navigating.html

First Netscape Navigator (evolved from Mosaic) Did Not Use Backspace

Scroll to previous page: Page Up

Source: http://www.w3.org/WAI/UA/netscape-keyboard.html

Possible reason why Microsoft used Backspace for back a page:

Back in 9/26/95, the Backspace key was mapped for go up one directory in Windows Explorer. This could be the reason why Microsoft also used the Backspace key on their IE for back/up a page. Of course, this is pure speculation on my part :)

Source: http://www.onecomputerguy.com/keyboard.htm

For Firefox:

The backspace key was mapped to the browser ‘Back’ function in Mozilla for consistency with Internet Explorer.

Source: http://kb.mozillazine.org/Browser.backspace_action

For other browsers:

I think the reason is similar to Firefox's, for consistency sake.

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48  
"It's Internet Explorer's fault"... well there's a shocker! :) –  Evil Closet Monkey Feb 28 at 20:00
    
Some of the Chromium bug report comments implied the same thing regarding Google Chrome. –  Aaron Hall Feb 28 at 20:04
    
I created a gist of a suggested answer outline here, but feel free to take whatever approach you feel best: gist.github.com/anonymous/9279297 –  Aaron Hall Feb 28 at 20:35
    
Fixed on chrome for linux: code.google.com/p/chromium/issues/detail?id=30699 –  Mike H-R Mar 22 at 11:48
    
I'm pretty sure "Scroll to previous page" in Netscape meant to scroll a page up, not to go back one page, though. –  Alexander Mar 22 at 12:43
  • How did this come about?

In 2005 this was implemented on Mozilla Firefox for the following reasons:

The backspace key was mapped to the browser ‘Back’ function in Mozilla for consistency with Internet Explorer. However, to improve consistency with other applications running on Linux, it was decided that this mapping should be optional—and set based on which platform the browser was running on. As a compromise, this preference was created to allow the backspace key to either go back/forward, scroll up/down a page, or do nothing.

Reference: Browser.backspace_action

  • Is the standard default behavior too strongly established to reverse course?

For almost ten years of internet browsing history, this is the default behavior. We may dislike it, but it will prevail a lot of Internet forums anger about it. There is a setting, which one can use if this is frustrating enough. Sometimes it's better to just accept things the way they are, take the minut it takes to change the default action, and forget it. I do this every time I download a new browser, since default doesn't work for me. Instead I see these options as a way to customize the browser to work the way I want, since I'm an unique user.

Developing a browser to work for all users, the way all users want is impossible. Instead one need to test how the browser is used to come up with a default setting, which can be customized. There is probably no good reason to keep a bad default setting.

Sometimes things live on even if the original meaning have since long disappeared. This may stand in your way, if your trying to change things. Reference: Save icon, is the floppy disk icon dead?

  • Can we change it if we establish that no-one uses it? (And how would we establish that?)

It's always possible to change things, but the longer an action has been around, the harder it's to change. You need to prove through scientific valid user testing that this setting really is a bad behavior. It takes time and effort, but you could definitely make it happen. Just remember to not test your friends. Test a large enough random user group, make your statistical metrics public, and convince Firefox governator that this should be changed.

Keep us posted on your progress and Good Luck!

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1  
Why can't Mozilla think for themselves? I hate it when people just blindly copy things from others, it just shows a total lack of thought and innovation. –  user43251 Jun 2 at 8:51

That feature is inherited from windows explorer feature, that migrated to Internet Explorer and then to other browsers. It became a de facto standard, due that most computers had Windows and Internet Explorer

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