How to go back

Ah, synchronicity. No, not the 80’s album by The Police, but the fact that I was recently thinking about “back” buttons and software states in the design of our forthcoming Android and iPhone app. And so was Aza Raskin.

Raskin suggests an improvement to the much-improvable experience of using the Apple iPhone’s ultra-simple, yet rather confusing “home” button. To cure what he says is a big problem on the phone (albeit not one I have myself noticed, but I’ve not done much research into it), he suggests a two-stage button instead.

Of course, we’d really need to use a prototype to get a firm idea, but I’m really not sure that something as subtle as a two-stage button in the context of a hand-held device will work very well. The iPhone (and Android) button is positioned, of necessity, very low down towards the edge of the phone, which gives its use a precariousness when you’re holding it with one hand. A camera is used while purposefully being held steady, usually over an opposing force. Without holding it steady, you can’t take a decent picture. This “culture” of camera usage has the happy side-effect of making a two-stage button practical. Mind you, I’ve just tried doing a two-stage press on my little Canon IXUS and it’s actually quite tricky with only one hand.

There are various solutions I could think of to the problem Raskin states, but I keep coming back to the conclusion that it would be better simply to fix the issue with a stronger “back” convention in the UI. Note also that his solution doesn’t address the wider issue of where “back” actually takes you within the app. Another partial solution would be to make apps preserve their state on close for a short time, so that recovery from mistakenly closing them is easier.

So I think Raskin”s idea is a nice one, but it also illustrates how damn hard HCI design is to do!