Snapchat has moved the back button: “Muscle memory” in a user interface

Have you noticed that Snapchat has moved the back button from right to left? Well, I noticed that. Several times.

Snapchat has moved the back button
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I have today (accidentally) initiated a video call three times. The first time I did it I was confused. When I did it again for the second time a little later in the day I started to wonder if Snapchat had moved the back button, or if it was just me buzzing. I looked it up and it turned out Snapchat had actually moved on it. When I again made the same mishap for the third time it struck me how unconsciously one can get bogged down with a user interface.

The fact that a back button is located on the right side, as it did in the previous version of Snapchat, is actually quite unusual.

Namely, a back button is usually located on the left side, because we connect back with the left and next with the right. In addition, most languages read from left to right, which is why it is natural to place important navigation, such as e.g. “back”, on the left side for easy access. Snapchat has reportedly now chosen to move the back button because many of its users have reported that they have come across the video call button when they really meant to hit the back button. I've experienced this myself in the past, so it's understandable that Snapchat is taking steps to prevent this. But why Snapchat originally chose to have the back button on the right side is to me a mystery.

It is also even more mysterious that the arrow in the previous version pointed to the right, and not to the left. The arrow to the right gives the impression that one is going forward instead of backward (back). An arrow to the left is thus intuitively perceived as a back button because it leads us back to the direction we came from. Snapchat had not only placed the back button on the right, but they had also turned the arrow to the right.

This little (and good) update from Snapchat made me realize how bored I've become with Snapchat's user interface, without realizing it.

My intuition about back buttons is that they should be located on the left side, and preferably also on the top left, as you see in most user interfaces in websites and apps. It should also point to the left.

Facebook, Gmail, Slack and Spotify have the back button in the upper left corner.

As with much else, placing the back button in the upper left corner is a best-practice principle that most people follow because this is the general intuition and expectation of the user. But while this location is also my general intuition, I've built up an intuition that the back button in Snapchat's UI is located in the top right corner. This is expressed in the fact that three times today I have pressed the video call button in the upper right corner, instead of the back button that is now located in the upper left. This is an intuition I've built up in my subconscious through using Snapchat a lot.

Unconscious habits

You probably also have established several habits in apps and websites that you often use. If you start from an app that you use daily, you probably won't be able to draw a detailed drawing of what that app's user interface looks like (unless you're a UI geek). But you still have built up an intuition in your subconscious that has a very good overview of how to quickly navigate your way around the app. If a new update comes along with a change to this user interface that you are used to using, this can create confusion and cause your flow to stop.

The fact that Snapchat has updated its user interface is not uncommon. It's very common for apps and websites to be updated, but when Snapchat makes changes like this, it's probably not for random reasons. Snapchat has millions of users, and even the slightest update in its user interface can have a huge impact. Another good example of this is then Instagram switched to horizontal scroll in the feed. This change created a lot of fuss, and it didn't take long for Instagram to change it back again to vertical scroll—which is what we're used to today.

Yes to updates!

The fact that Snapchat, Instagram and all other major apps and websites are updating their user interface is a good thing. These updates are not just about making the design look pretty, they are also about designing a user interface that feels user-friendly and intuitive. When many people then report to Snapchat that they accidentally hit the video call button, it's good that Snapchat is addressing this issue.

This Snapchat example highlights the importance of a well-thought-out UI design from the get-go. Of course, it is possible to make updates afterwards, but we then see that these updates can cause the flow of users to stop. This example also illustrates our intuition in a user interface, and how many habits we have in our subconscious - also in the field of design.