For context in this question, I am recalling a programmable thermostat interface with four large buttons, two each on the left and right side of an LCD display. The display showed labels for the buttons, which changed depending on the mode. At a particular place in the "programming" sequence, the center of the screen had a flashing "Monday / Leave / 19C " with "10:30" not flashing and the labels next to each button were: "Return" (upper left), "Save" (upper right), "-" (lower left) and "+" (lower right).

Does that upper left label mean "return" as in the common sense of "go back to where you were before / the previous step?" Or does it carry the programming sense of the word, "take this value back and continue to the next step?" On many keyboards, it seems the "return" key (also sometimes called Enter) is closer to the latter meaning. In this particular context, it could also mean "Instead of programming the 'leave' temperature, switch to programming what the temperature when the occupant returns/comes back into the space, when the temperature setting should return to what is desired for when the space is occupied."

From this interface, it seems that pushing the + and - buttons would adjust the time set temperature but it's not clear exactly what the meaning of "return" should be in UIs. In the particular instance motivating the question, the user had a very young child who had pressed some of the buttons on a thermostat the user did not have permission to program. The user wished to cancel out all recent changes and return to the previous state, without having personal memory of what all that state was, and the interface did not appear at all clear about how to accomplish that, if it was even possible.

Are there any standards or best practices published on this?

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    This is completely contextual. "Return" could mean one thing for a user of a computer terminal application, while meaning something completely different to a user of an e-commerce site. I believe there are various operating system design guidelines that advise certain words to be used in certain ways, but even still, it's always going to be dependent on your particular context, and is not universal. In your particular example, I'd suggest the only answer is what the documentation says. Jan 4, 2021 at 21:35
  • Off topic, but... my programmable central heating is such a UX failure that it is impossible to use without the instructions.
    – PhillipW
    Jun 5, 2021 at 19:34

1 Answer 1


Rather than make the user try and decode the button's meaning based on the one word, perhaps you could use the standard X button, for the very reasons outlined in my answer to the question Why is a cancel "X" icon required if there is already a "Cancel" option in a modal?

The X button is an almost universal shortcut escape to 'get me out of here' that doesn't force the user to decode the other buttons. Additionally, the fact that there's a Save button in one corner suggests that whether you use Return button or an X button, you shouldn't be expecting those buttons to also save!?

For what it's worth, a 'Return' button isolated away from the context of a keyboard or editing environment shouldn't really be expected to act like a Return/Enter key.

Another point worth considering in your use case is whether Save might either appear or become enabled only when there are changes that have been made.

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