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The highly used "back" button on common browsers has been redesigned in a move that could make navigating the Web more efficient.

Computer scientists in New Zealand have developed a system that records every page in the order it was visited. The current back button stacking system only records index pages. With the back button accounting for 40 percent of all clicks on-line, the new "temporal" alternative could make it easier for Web users to re-trace their steps, the researcher said.

According to Andy Cockburn of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab in the University of Canterbury, the back button is one of the world's most heavily used interface components, but its behaviour is commonly misunderstood. "The main problem with the current back button is that recently visited pages disappear," said Cockburn in Nature magazine interview. "'Back' would more accurately be labelled up."

In order to test the usability of the new system, Cockburn and his colleagues had people use browsers that were either reprogrammed with the temporal system or featured the traditional system. The testers were not made aware of the presence or absence of new features.

According to the researchers, the results showed that the new system was not good at supporting backtracking to index/parent pages, which made it easier to get lost in large Web sites. However, it did work well at navigating between distant pages.

They also found that users of the temporal scheme either solved tasks very efficiently or very inefficiently, depending on whether they used the back menu, which drops down from the back button.

The scientists said that this latter finding indicated that commercial adaptations of the temporal system that improve the effectiveness of the back menu may improve Web navigation. In addition, on average, the two system worked equally well. Cockburn said this was a heartening result for the new system as it faces an additional burden of unfamiliarity.

Cockburn told Nature magazine that there had been interest in the system from commercial developers, but that it would be "a bold move" to change the current back scheme as it is used so heavily. He added that orderly clicking will need more features before it has a realistic chance of the replacing the stacking system.

The research team is now looking to add thumbnail images of visited Web pages that would be placed on the back menu to the temporal system. Cockburn predicted that such pictures will be in the next generation of browsers.

© ENN

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