Should Mobile App Designers Fear the Back Button?

This morning I got together with Tony Wright — one of my favorite Seattle-area entrepreneurs and a deep thinker on the topic of mobile app distribution and user experience design (among many other things).

We covered a lot of ground in the discussion, but one idea in particular stuck in my head. On the topic of designing for native mobile experiences, Tony said something to the effect that:

“I don’t worry about the back button so much when designing for mobile”

It took a minute for this to sink in, but in retrospect it’s a critically important idea for anyone who’s trying to translate their web product experience into a native mobile context.

One of the longest-standing cliches in the web software business is that “your competitors are always just a click away” — a first-time web visitor is a fragile and flighty creature, liable at any moment to click the back button and leave forever. A whole industry of landing page optimization, A/B testing and real-time analytics has grown up around this mythology of the all-powerful back button.

Tony’s point is that much of this web-centric conditioning is just plain wrong-headed when applied to native mobile experiences.

This *doesn’t* mean that you should treat your mobile customers like shit — creating a great first use experience critically important for any product. But it *does* mean that you should reconsider where you are in the engagement funnel by the time a mobile user first launches your app.

In web terms, the “landing page” for any mobile app isn’t actually in the app — it’s the page (either in the app store or on the web) where the user first decides to commit to downloading your app to their device. It’s on that page (or set of pages) where you need to treat the user like the flighty, uncommitted web user you’re used to dealing with. (This emerging discipline is called App Store Optimization, and it promises to be at least as big a deal for mobile as SEO is to the web.)

By the time a mobile user has evaluated your app, initiated download and agreed to the terms of use, they’ve escalated their commitment *way* beyond a traditional web visitor — and you have more headroom than you think to surprise and delight them.

Not only is a new mobile user much deeper in the funnel than you might think, but switching apps is more costly (in terms of time + effort) than hitting the back button, so the power of inertia is also on your side.

What you do with this opportunity is up to you — but don’t make the mistake of porting your web design instincts to your mobile app without taking Tony’s advice into account.