Is there any standard recommendation on when to use previous/next vs. back/forward? Or is there any reason not to pair back with next?

To me, previous/next make sense to use as a pair when navigating a linear sequence, such as flipping through the pages of a book, while back/forward should be used when navigating an environment that doesn't have a logical linear sequence, such as a web browser.

That said, I'm tempted to use back/next as a pair simply because of the fact that they are more concise words and have a symmetry in their number of characters.

Thoughts? Recommendations? Any empirical evidence on this subject?

3 Answers 3


You move back and forward in history.
You move to the previous and next element in a chain.

So back and forward are more specific than previous and next, i.e. the latter are always ok, the first only if the user has been there before (as Michael Histen already said).

Within these rules, back / next is a correct pair if you always start at the first element.

(You could switch between forward and next in this scenario, but there's no point to it, and it would likely confuse the user.)

  • these terms are lexical paired as directions of travel along a given dimension; doing mixing and match between dimensions is ill advised as it induces cognitive dissonance which reduces comprehension.
    – Dan D.
    Commented Feb 11, 2011 at 18:31
  • @ Dan D.: I don't see a problem with that, OTOH I'm not a native speaker, so I won't ague against that.
    – peterchen
    Commented Feb 16, 2011 at 22:27

I think the whole answer lies in what users expect!

  • previous/next are the most obvious in many cases, because you see them almost everywhere (for example in case of forms, list of pages, Google, etc) - here's an article on how to use previous/next in case of forms http://www.uie.com/articles/previous_next_luke/
  • can't think of any online situation when I saw back/forward
  • but would never use the combination of it

Unfortunately I couldn't find any empirical evidence

  • I'm glad to get some agreement about the fact that these terms need to work as a pair. IOW, back/next doesn't really make sense. (..and thanks for the article link)
    – Bob.
    Commented Feb 4, 2011 at 21:23

In the browser interface, "Back" means "go to the last page I was on" -- it indicates returning to a place you've been to before. If you are using "back" to refer to older or previous content in a linear sequence that the user may not have seen, you are potentially creating confusion.

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