In a recent presentation from a Google employee (Navigation anti-patterns), it states pretty directly that it's bad practice to navigate tabs using the back button (see this slide - https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/+NickButcher/albums/5981768132040708401/5981768188790396002?pid=5981768188790396002&oid=118292708268361843293)

I agree with this, however in a significant number of user tests being run, users are hitting the back button in certain instances expecting it to go back to the first tab. They're getting (audibly) frustrated.

As an Android dev, going against Google's guidelines irks me, but at the same time, the problem is there (with a potential fix). Should I stick to Google's guidelines? Does anyone have experience with this? Is there something else foundationally wrong with my navigation if users are expecting back to go to the first tab?

3 Answers 3


When using an app with tab bar paradigm, moving between two tabs isn't really navigation per se, at least not in backward/forward sense. It's more like jumping sideways between isolated navigation trees, and each tree has a task and a state (and a back-stack) that is very much alive, even though you're not there as a user. Adding the back button to the mix confuses things greatly. It makes the user completely lose the feeling of what he/she has in front of him/her, spoiling every chance to ever get it. The back button should never be used to move back further than to level 0 of the current navigation tree (tab). Also, avoid deep-linking between tabs as that will further confuse this pattern.

I work with a designer that really wanted to be able to even swipe between the tabs of an iPhone app we're working on. Even though is arguments made some sense, I said firmly No to that as it is not inline with how a tab bar pattern should be used. You have to be true to your paradigm, even if that means a lot of user own't get what they want. Otherwise it will start to slip, and you end up with nothing to hold on to when taking design decisions. If a lot of users are uncomfortable with it, maybe the answer is to use a different paradigm.

  • you are totally correct! It is incredible how many "mobile" designers (who were probably web designers yesterday) are out there that have little or no idea about the two very different UI paradigms from Android and iOS. Jul 7, 2015 at 14:12

I would suggest two things:

  1. Trust your users, and continuously run user testing to see what users truly do with your application. Different from other responses, I would suggest following what YOUR users do. Google's very first guideline is "focus on the user and all else will follow". Google's guideline regarding the back button is what they hope the industry standards should be. However, if many users already form the mindsets differently, the industry standards should change accordingly. After all, we are designing for the users, not the industry guideline.

  2. If a lot of your users, specifically, use the back button to go to the previous tab, maybe because you are not using the tab in its original purpose? If it was up to me, I would test WHY users are clicking the back button to go to the previous tab. Maybe consider changing the structure of your application so it doesn't contain any confusion for tabs?

Also, Jakob Nielsen had explained the issue of "When Bad Design Elements Become the Standard" and "Navigation Tabs" as early as 1999. And I think it quite relevant and can help you on your question. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/when-bad-design-elements-become-the-standard/


Something might be wrong with your navigation, something might be wrong with your test, or this really is a true usability problem with Android guidelines.

I'm curious as to the nature of your testing -- if, for example, you instructed users to "go back to the first tab", the phrase "go back" might have prompted them to use the back button which they might not have thought to do otherwise.

Also, does your app follow the other principles for tabs from the presentation -- that is, they're swipable shallow tabs? If not, that might cause confusion as well.

If you feel like this is a true usability problem, I would look at popular apps that use tabs similarly. How does the back button behave there? If they also override standard back functionality to comfortably navigate tabs, you have good reason to follow their example. If not, see if there are differences in how you're presenting tabs -- perhaps it's a problem with your usage afterall. I would still be very cautious about implementing non-standard behavior.

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