Don’t break the back button

One of the golden rules of web development is “Don’t break the back button”.

The back button is one of the first concepts that somebody who is new to the web learns. It gives people the confidence to click on links safe in the knowledge that they can always return to where they were.

Breaking the back button is not a new problem. Jakob Neilsen has been banging on about it for longer than I’ve been using the web.

But, we keep finding new ways to break it.

I wrote recently that this is one of the unsolved problems with applications that use a lot of AJAX. Well, Julien Lecomte from the Yahoo! User Interface team has come up with a possible solution that he’s calling Browser History Manager.

This uses a combination of JavaScript hacks to fool the browser into thinking the page has changed, and so effects what happens when the user clicks the back button. Provided it’s coded smartly it also allows users to bookmark an AJAX page in a specific state, which is nice.

It’s good to see that people are working on this sort of thing, but to me it feels like a very hacky solution.

At what point does the fact we need to fix these sorts of problems cause us to re-consider the whole approach?

2 thoughts on “Don’t break the back button”

  1. the back button is one of the reasons i use opera over firefox.. i wanna see again what i just submitted in this here textarea, i’ll hit back and it’ll still be there.. (unlike mozilla)

    gmail’s heavily ajaxed system doesn’t let me do this — but that’s *almost* okay because in gmail you can find it in the UI. The stuff i submitted is in the sent folder.

    so, i think it depends on what your web app does. What does the person get out of the back button – and if they can get it from the application without the back button then you’re okay.

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