There’s been a mini-flurry of debate on the Android Back button, with Christoffer Du Rietz arguing that it’s harmful and broken, and a small chorus of the usual Android-hater suspects chiming in. Steven Van Bael pushes back. There are interesting subtleties here.
Provenance · Here’s a really easy question: Where does the notion of a Back button come from? I have argued, and I’m really not joking, that the Web browser’s Back button is one of the greatest user-interface innovations of my lifetime. First, it’s useful. Second, the knowledge that wherever you are, if you’re lost or confused or change your mind you can back out, has been immensely successful in defusing angst among nontechnical users and encouraging them to check things out that otherwise they might not.
So I’d ask those who want to amputate Android’s back button to consider doing the same thing to their browser. No takers, right?
What Does “Back” Mean? · To the extent that there’s any room for criticism, it’s that sometimes it feels like you need two back buttons. Christoffer’s example is clicking something that takes you to a tweet in your Twitter client. Maybe, when you go back, you want to go to your Twitter timeline, not back to the browser or wherever it was that sent you to Twitter.
Ooh! Confusion! Breakage!
This line of argument is simply wrong. First, consider the alternate case, which happens 100 times as often: when I click on something in Twitter and go to the browser or YouTube or whatever, then want to go back to Twitter. The Back button solves the most common use-case elegantly and minimally.
Which is to say that on the vast majority of occasions, the average person knows more or less how they got to where they are and where pushing Back will take them, and this is a good thing.
But in fact, I think, I think that in Christoffer’s case, what he really wants is two separate buttons for Back and for “Up”. Take me back where I was, or Up to the top of the current resource.
The Up Button · The same situation arises when you click on a “mailto” link and get popped into your email. When you leave there, do you want to back to where the link was, or up to your inbox?
What you’d like is what we have on the Web, where in just about any site, you can expect that clicking on the big fat logo in the top left will get you to that site’s top level.
Google is actually pretty good at learning from the Web. So, If you use Honeycomb, the most recent Android release that’s actually in the field, you’ll discover that more or less every app has an “Action Bar” across the top, and at its left is an app icon that works as an Up button. Which is to say, you get both options.
Judgment Calls · There are in fact cases where it might make sense for an app to intercept the Back button and use it for Up. Twidroyd, a Twitter client now known as Ubersocial, used to do that: If an app bounced you into a tweet, hitting Back once took you to your timeline, and then hitting it again took you to where you came from.
I notice that DropBox does this too: If you’re sharing something to DropBox, it remembers which folder you last shared to and takes you there (usually right); if you hit Back it climbs up through the DropBox folder hierarchy, and from the root back to where you came from, aborting the share. And if you hit Share, it pops you back to wherever you shared from.
I hated the Ubersocial choice, but find DropBox’s comfortable. Which is to say, there is room for judgment as to what to do with the Back button; developers have to, you know, think, about how to achieve the principle of least surprise. (Hint: The system’s default action is almost always right.) But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.
Keep The Button · I think if you polled a large number of regular Android users on whether they like the button, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single one who wanted to lose it; most would say it’s one of the better features.
The people on the other side are saying more about their own agendas than about the subject at hand. I’m reminded of those who argued for years that no, you really shouldn’t want to have more than one button on a mouse.
Yes, Make Them Soft · More and more current phone and tablet designs omit hard buttons entirely. And this seems to be a win if only because you can make sure the buttons are in the same place however you currently happen to be holding the phone. So I agree with Christoffer that soft is better than hard.
He’s also right that it’s sometimes OK to leave out the Menu button, which turns out to be superfluous in lots of apps.
But soft or hard, the presence of the Back button is a win; one of the single biggest wins you can offer your users. It reduces friction, makes apps play better together, and improves people’s day-to-day interaction with their devices and with the world.