Back and Forth

Back and Forward The trend of software interfaces taking on more and more properties of the Web (e.g. underlined links, Flash-driven interactivity) is nothing new, but I think my favorite feature migration is the integration of the ‘back’ and ‘forward’ buttons commonly found on Web browsers into traditional ‘offline’ applications.

A perfect example is Quicken 2002. At the office we keep our books in the Windows version and for my home finances I keep my finances in the Macintosh version. They are, somewhat disappointingly, inconsistent across the two platforms though neither is demonstrably better than the other — except for the inclusion of back and forward buttons in the Windows model, which is plainly terrific.

Quicken Navigation

This makes all the difference in the world because Quicken, like many of the complex, bloatware applications on the market today, is really a synthesis of a dozen or so fairly different feature modules; there’s the register, reporting, check writing, inventory, etc.

The back and forward buttons don’t relieve information architects of their duty to unite these disparate modes into a cohesive, metaphor-bound experience. But the buttons do provide for a highly efficient, supplemental mode of navigation in that they allow users to stitch together a linear conceptual model of the interaction experience. Which is to say, no matter how complex the interaction is, back and forward buttons allow users to return to the screens and modes they were just in before, very simply, swiftly and without having to negotiate the application’s navigation.

I know this is a great feature because, after using it for several weeks in Quicken, I found myself longing for it in lots of other programs: I want to be able jump between playlists and browsing modes with such buttons in iTunes, I want to be able to toggle between mail messages, calendars and tasks in Entourage and Outlook, I want to be able to bounce around worksheets in Excel, I even want to be able to skip to various points in my Photoshop history. (I’m thankful that Apple and Microsoft are both smart enough to include this functionality in the Finder and the Windows Explorer.)