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When implementing a button which takes the user back to the previous page, should I make it go back in the browser history or should it go forward, the same way it does for regular links?

The browser history buttons apply to the browser's history. But I'm quite unsure buttons inside a website should behave the same. For example, if I come from website A to website B, on website B there's a return button and I click it, I don't think it should take me back to website A. It should take me to the homepage of website B, because it's a navigation button specific to website B. However, if I use the browser history button to go back, it should take me back to website A, because it's a navigation button specific to the browser and all the pages it visits.

Is there any consensus on this matter?

  • Tell us where you are implementing this and why you thinking about this. If you have wireframe or templates, please, also add to the post. Because is absolutely natural that a back button inside of any website just back to the previous page on the current site and not have the same behaviour of the browser back button. – Rafael Perozin Mar 6 at 9:01
  • @RafaelPerozin I don't have any example as my question is generic. Its answer should be of use whenever I must build a return button, no matter the context. – papillon Mar 6 at 9:40
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I'd suggest you avoid saying it goes 'back' to a page, rather just make it say 'go to X'. This means that users landing on a product page, can choose to 'go to product overview', rather than 'back to product overview', because to them there is no real step back within the website. This avoids ambiguity to where you go 'back to'. In the end it's all about managing expectations. A button should not behave the same as the browser back button, because it can cause issues when a flow takes place in what is technically the same screen.

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This is a complex question because the behaviour of "back" is both ambiguous and highly contextual.

Some points to consider.

Duplicating the browser functionality - If your intention is to make a button in the website duplicate what the browser back button does, this would probably be unnecessary if you...

Develop a website to accommodate browser functionality You would ideally have your site function perfectly based on using the browser history. What this equates to is having all interactions or navigation represented by a distinct URL, and have any internal state management handle these changes.

Using "back" in multistep processes The GDS Design system uses a "back" button when you are performing a multi step process if needed. It's not always needed if you follow the previous two points. https://design-system.service.gov.uk/components/back-link/

Your point about transitioning between websites is an interesting one, but I'd refer to my initial point, you probably don't want a back button which replicates browser functionality on an entry point to website B in your example. By all means put a back button in website B when you're in the middle of a step by step process if needed, but not the entry point.

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As always with UIs, think about the analogy the user has in their vision, their experience at that instant, their context and mode.

If your button does what every other app does, but Leslie is surprised by your button's behaviour, that's fine, and educational.

However, if your button's action behaves in an 'unusual' but effective and satisfying manner, then Leslie will be OK, but it will initially surprise experienced computer users. They won't be really unhappy except that they have to 'think before they hit' between using your button or the regular browser button. That's where you have to help them by making the button Look Different; eg can it say 'UP' not 'BACK'?

Accelerators -- if this is a desktop what shortcut/gesture are you providing? I use Alt-Left-arrow and often Backspace for in various browsers when I have no mouse handy. Think about that aspect as well.

Interesting question... thanks.

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