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This is of course a very general question and circumstances will vary. But in general, which annoys most users least when they hit their browser's back button - to go to the top of the page they were on before, or to go to where they were on it?

Please give reasons, and if possible state advantages and disadvantages of the two possibilities, because user @jazZRo opined that this question looked like a poll, before I wrote this sentence, or like a solicitation of opinions, which apparently the company that owns this website does not approve of being posted here. This is despite nobody answering it as if it were similar to a poll or a solicitation of opinions. Nonetheless, I shall be clearer. As I said, please give reasons so that nobody thinks this is a poll or a solicitation of opinions. Thanks.

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    The question looks like a poll and questions should not ask for opinions on this site. Can you rephrase it and add some context to it? See also the help center if you need more info.
    – jazZRo
    Jan 29 at 8:42
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    The obvious answer is that when a user clicks "Back", it's because they want to go back to what they were looking at before they clicked on a link. So if the "Back" button doesn't do that, it's defective. Jan 29 at 20:11
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    @Spratty - perhaps we have different users then, because I don't think I've ever had a user who needed the "back button" concept explained to them. But regardless, the question assumes that "if the user goes back", implying that "go back" has some meaning to them already. Jan 30 at 21:55
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    A gotcha on the back arrow: When using apps in right-to-left language environment, it can be hard to tell which way is back and which is forward, as the arrows are only sometimes reversed
    – Jonathan
    Jan 31 at 8:40
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    @SimonGeard - Whoops! I meant to address my comment to user "tell", not to you; it was the "How many users' browsers' back buttons say "Back"? Mine doesn't. It just has a left-pointing arrow" I was curious about. I blame lack of sleep and tight deadlines for a slip of attention. Sincere apologies - that must have been a confusing question to parse against your own comment.
    – Spratty
    Jan 31 at 11:25

6 Answers 6

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Based on my experience with a similar question where I did some user-research (questionnaires etc.), they always reported they expect to be put back to the position they have been last on the previous page. If you imagine an online shop for example where you are scrolling through a long list of items. Then you click on one of the items to see the details and eventually click the back button to continue searching through the list of items, you don't want to start from the beginning—and usually you also cannot remember where you were. So putting the user back to the position where they left is the better behaviour.

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    I am struggling to think of a scenario where I would want to be returned to the top of page A instead of where I was. Although most interfaces I use are ones where page B is a detail view of a specific item in a collection (like opening a Reddit post or a product in a webshop). Jan 29 at 10:31
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    If you're taken back to the top of the page, it's potentially hard to find where you originally were. If you're taken back to where you originally were, it's not hard to find the top of the page.
    – JBYoshi
    Jan 29 at 21:04
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    @Vatev that seems to be a particular problem with continuous scrolling sites. Facebook is the worst example because it not only puts you back somewhere you weren't, it changes the content too
    – Chris H
    Jan 30 at 13:25
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    This is most definitely the right answer. I've been playing some GTA online where there is a 'browser' on your in-game phone. When viewing a long list of cars for sale on a website and click on one to view the details, the back button sends me back to the top of the list of cars. This is very jarring to me now and wastes my time as I have to manually scroll back down to wherever I was in the list. If going back to the top of the previous page is a common occurrence, there should be a breadcrumb or link in the header to go to that page. Jan 31 at 2:54
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    Not only does the user expect the location to be retain, they probably expect as much state to be retained (entered fields etc). Also, obligatory xkcd
    – Jonathan
    Jan 31 at 8:17
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Every browser I've ever used returns you to your previous in-page location on Go Back. I'd expect that's what users will expect other systems to do, and that different behavior will be disorientating. The principle here is predictability: "A user interface is well-designed when the program behaves exactly how the user thought it would." (Joel Spolsky)

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    Too bad many programs use browser-like GUIs without using these browser features, basically trying to reinvent the wheel and forgetting bout essentials. Steam and GOG are guilty of this, as they emulate webshops in their own programs, but when I view an item and go back, I often get to the first item.
    – vsz
    Jan 31 at 10:54
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The right behavior is what the user's user-agent does for them in the absence of any action by the site trying to interfere with that. Conventionally, that is returning to the exact position they were at before navigating away, but you can imagine an otherwise conventional browser where that's an option the user can select, or a wildly different type of user-agent where the concept doesn't even make sense.

As a web designer, if you're asking a question of what you should do to change/override/suppress the behavior the user is expecting, the answer is nothing -- you shouldn't.

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Overall, the other answers are correct: in the absence of other reasoning, you should hew as closely as possible to native browser/HTML behavior, which is to go back to the exact position.

But as always in this field - it depends. And in this case, it depends on the user's mental model. There are two reasons one might click "go back":

I went to the wrong place.

The user wants to undo this click. In the absence of research that tells us otherwise, we can presume that this means "go back to their exact prior position" because that's where they were when they made the mistake.

I finished what I came to do.

If the user went to the correct place, it's a bit harder to assume. They might want to go back and do something else somewhere else. But you know one thing: they have already seen the top of page 1 and scrolled past it. Whatever they are doing next is far less likely to be located back towards the part of the list they have already seen.

Going back to where they were is otherwise impossible

Either way, it's always easy to get to the top of page 1 of a list through multiple design patterns (breadcrumbs, topnav, etc). Taking away one of many ways doesn't harm the user much. But there's only one way to get back to the middle of page 35 - the back button. And taking away the only way to do this leaves them in a bind.

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<rhetorical question>Why would a user ever press the back button?</rhetorical question>

I suggest that you construct a straw-man use case, and then walk through it with some actual users. Several people have already said that they think "<-" means: "go back to exactly where you were before you entered this page", and I'm pretty much inclined to agree with them, but just possibly your users want something different. If they do, what they wants trumps whatever they want. If not, go with standard behavior.

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While there are some excellent answers here already, I would add that this question belongs to a class of problem for which the general usability principle of "user input is sacred" applies:

When faced with a circumstance in which the user may lose their input (or "work"), always try to design the system such that it prevents that loss.

In the case of this question, the "input" here has been to scroll down the page. The principle says you should preserve that work. So take them back to where they were. The same principle would apply to a form they had filled out on that page, or the state of a panel they opened, etc.

In general, it is always better to work with higher-level design principles to solve problems like this rather than thinking about their specific circumstances. This is because it can help to get you out of the "it depends" trap, and encourages you to think consistently about the overall UX of your system.

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