Know Your History

The use of a History section in a media-centric app might seem obvious. Netflix calls it “Continue Watching,” Hulu Plus has “Resume” and “History,” and Spotify places “History” under Play Queue on the Mac (though surprisingly there’s no History at all on iPhone or iPad) But the fact is pretty much every website or application could benefit from the addition of a History section; something that lets users quickly and easily return to whatever task they were working on the last time they launched the app, along with some browser-style navigation to let users retrace their steps even further.* In short, History is perhaps the single most under-appreciated interface function out there.

The issue is one of omission without reason: why shouldn’t I be able to look at whatever I looked at last? Even if I’m going to my American Express site, chances are I’ll want to look at something I looked at the last time I was there.

Which brings us to a related something I like to call “Assume the Resume!” Let’s say you’re watching Netflix on AppleTV. Your kid wakes up from her nap so you shut it off, not wanting your children to think you ever waste time rotting your brain watching television. But that night, when you navigate back to the movie and click Play, you’re greeted by the following choice:
This menu (“Resume Playing/Start from Beginning”) is unnecessary since chances are you do want to watch the rest of your program, that’s why you’re back in front of your TV, desperately hitting the Play button. A more rewarding (and appropriate) experience would be for the video to just start playing where we left off once we hit Play. Get users back to Breaking Bad as quickly as possible. When you’re reading a book, you stick a bookmark in it for a reason. Nobody wants to start a book over from the beginning every time. Besides, everyone already knows how to rewind, so those edge-case users that want to start the thing over are already taken care of. Why force the majority of users to hit that one extra button? One sure sign the additional menu choice is extraneous is the fact that I forget about it every time. I hit Play, throw my remote on the coffee table, and immediately have to pick it back up to tell Netflix to Resume Playing my show. Every. Single. Time. Assume the Resume!!

But I digress.

The same can be said of pretty much any application, particularly those designed for enterprise use. More often than not we use an app to repeatedly accomplish a single task (or set of tasks). Why make a user jump through hoops to get back to whatever it was they were working on? Getting a user back to that most recent task should be as high a priority as any other main-nav item.

But don’t take my word for it. Naturally, the great George Santayana was thinking only of including History in websites and mobile apps when in 1905 he so famously penned the quotation: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Having three young children, I have trouble remembering anything (including where the third kid came from). Why force me to retrace my steps? Why condemn users to repeating the past when you can provide them a direct link right to it? Adding History may even provide a simple yet effective quick-fix for websites or applications that are otherwise impossible to navigate. I’m talking to you, Newsday!! Be sure that history section also includes some back and forward navigation to allow further path-checking and you will create happier, more efficient users as a result. Don’t knock it. That navigation works for a reason. It’s simple and it’s intuitive.

But since we’re all supposed to be interacting with content now, at least on our mobile devices—and not with buttons, the deeper question is this: how might we represent the idea of history through gestures? Safari on iPhone has already replaced the back and forward buttons with right and left page-swipes, so that would make sense within the History section. Perhaps an appropriate go-to-History gesture might be represented by a four-finger pinch, as in ‘zoom out of here and get me back to where I was, already!’


* I’m looking at you, Radiolab (greatest radio show ever)!

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Phono Image610 239 8100