In 1999 Jakob Nielsen stated that "the Back button is the lifeline of the Web user and the second-most used navigation feature (after following hypertext links)". But the web has evolved since then, Today we use applications where we sometimes are punished for using the back button. Using the back button signed in at a bank makes you imediately sign out, having the dubious pleasure of signing in again. Since 2007 we have had (true) mobile web. So one wonders... Is the browser back button still the second most used navigation feature?

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    Anecdotally at the NN/g Usability Week in Seattle in November '12, in one of the sessions this topic came up and they reiterated the back button claim. It was not sourced obviously but if they are still making the claim during training sessions it is safe to assume they still stand behind it. – Charles Wesley Mar 7 '13 at 20:32
  • @CharlesWesley For something as fast moving as the web, not having a later dated study (?) than 1999, this statement couldn't be accurate. Intresting note though - where you there yourself? – Benny Skogberg Mar 7 '13 at 20:35
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    Yes I was lucky to be able to attend all five days. Lots of good information in the sessions I attended, and would have liked to have had a clone to attend additional sessions :) – Charles Wesley Mar 7 '13 at 20:36
  • @CharlesWesley That's always the case when on conference :-) – Benny Skogberg Mar 7 '13 at 20:39
  • Nope, it's shortcut (backspace) is :-) – Marjan Venema Mar 8 '13 at 11:38

I cant find any study which states that its the second most used navigation feature,but according to this study from Mozilla What is the most clicked Firefox button? in 2010, it was the most used navigation feature

To quote the study

By a landslide the 'Back' button was the most clicked of all navigation buttons which include the Back, Forward, Reload, Stop, and Home buttons. Across Windows, Mac and Linux 93.1 percent of users clicked the button at least once over the course of a five-day period. In total the study reported that users clicked on the back button 66 times over the course of five days.

Another reference to the study has this summary :

Across Windows, Mac and Linux 93.1 percent of users clicked the button at least once over the course of a five-day period. In total the study reported that users clicked on the back button 66 times over the course of five days. The next most used button is the 'Reload' button with 73.2 percent usage and 22 clicks on average per user over five days. Other areas of the main window that were heavily used include the Search Bar where users input search queries. The study found that 67.9 percent of users used the Search Bar for an average of nearly 16 clicks per user over the course of five days.'"

However interestingly this paper on the impact of tabbed browsing shows that when a user extensively uses tabs to go to a new link, the usage of the back button drops significantly as highlighted below:

Previous studies on revisitation have noted that a relatively large portion of navigation actions are caused by the use of the back button. However, this seems to be following a downward trend. In Catledge and Pitkow's study , the back button accounted for 41% of all navigation actions. A few years later, Tauscher and Greenberg found that it only accounted for about 30%. In one of the more recent studies, Weinreich et al. found it to be only 14%. Because tabs offer a kind of revisitation, one would expect that the use of other browser revisitation mechanisms would be significantly lower among people who use tabs (or multiple windows) frequently. Indeed, Weinreich et al. found that this was true: for participants who used tabs or multiple windows frequently, the back button accounted for about 10% of navigation actions, compared to 14% for their entire study population.

In our study, the back button accounted for a median of 7.1% of navigation actions. Among the group of tab power users, the median was 5.8%. The participant with the lowest tab creation rate, P12, was also the highest user of the back button. This data supports the hypothesis put forth by Weinreich et al. that increased use of multiple windows and tabs results in decreased use of the back button.

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  • Thanks for this! The data point about tab-heavy users is quite interesting. From personal experience, I can say my shift to opening more tabs over the years has dramatically decreased my use of the back button. – Noah C Mar 8 '13 at 2:50
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    Could opening a link in a new tab, reading that tab, and then closing it to land on the original tab still be considered going "back"? – Dave Luciano Mar 8 '13 at 21:21

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