When we're presenting mobile wireframes, we often run into the commentary where you get the 'I think that's too many taps'.

This is a variation on the 'everything must be within 3 clicks' myth. I'm wondering if anyone has encountered research that would be specific to mobile. For example, many apps use a simple 'back' button in the upper left to back up a level. My belief is that this is fine. It's trivial to tap a button 2 or 3 times to back out of a path.

But is there any research to back that up (or for that matter, counter my belief?)

1 Answer 1


Interesting question.

According to Jacob Nielsen:

“The Back button is the lifeline of the Web user and the second-most used navigation feature (after following hypertext links). Users happily know that they can try anything on the Web and always be saved by a click or two on Back to return them to familiar territory.”

But that was 1999 and Nielsen was talking about the back button in desktop brosers.

Is it the same with mobile navigation today?

I've done some research on this topic lately and basically:

  1. Many studies (references below) seem to agree that users are so familiar with the Back button on desktop browsers that they find it quite natural to use it also on mobile apps.
  2. Other studies point out that the behavior of the Back button across mobile apps is still too inconsistent.
  3. In some contexts (e.g. during checkout) users are afraid of using the "Back" button because it may cause them to lose the data they've just filled out.


In this article Donald A. Norman and Jakob Nielsen discuss the "Back" button on iOS and Android native applications:

Yes, provide a back button - or perhaps call it a dismiss button, but make it follow the user's model of "going back," not the programmer's model that is incorporated into the Activity Stack of the OS. Among other things, it should have a hard stop when at the top level of the application. Allowing it to exit the application is wrong.

In this article about tablet usability Nielsen writes:

Given the web’s dominance in computer use these days, it’s not surprising that we found concepts from the web user experience bleeding through the platform divide and influencing people’s use of tablet apps. Key examples here include search dominance and heavy reliance on the Back button.


Unfortunately, even with apps that did offer Back, our testing revealed periodic usability problems: sometimes the feature was hard to find, while other times it didn’t undo the user’s last action as expected.

In the study "iPad Usability: Year One" Nielsen tells us about usability problems in apps lacking a "Back" button:

Accidental activation due to unintended touches again caused trouble, particularly in apps lacking a Back button.

On the other hand, when user data are involved (e.g., during checkout or user registration), the "back" button can be perceived as dangerous ("Will I lose all the data I've just filled out?"):

During checkout, the “back” button was generally perceived by the subjects to be dangerous, and subjects used it during checkout only when they felt they were out of all other options.

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