Opinion: Breadcrumb back button navigation on iPhone X is strangely ‘undesigned’

With the iPhone X, Apple had to redesign the top of the iOS user interface significantly to accommodate the notch in the display.

Rather than just dividing the status bar in two, Apple designed and engineered a significant overhaul to status items. New icons, new animations, new transitions … with one strange exception that was seemingly left unchanged.

What I am talking about is the little back button that appears in the status bar when you jump from one app to another. (I’m not talking about the back button for navigation stacks, which moves between pages inside a particular app.)

For example, if you open a web link in Mail, the iPhone switches apps to Safari and puts a small button in the status bar area, below the time.

This button has an arrow pointing left (‘back’) with the name of the application. If you tap on it, it jumps back to the Mail app.

It’s a nice little shortcut that was first introduced in iOS 9. In iOS 9, it would wholly replace the other items in the left side of the status bar with a ‘Back to [app]’ label. It was later updated to take up less room so other status item indicators could sit alongside it.

On normal iPhones with home buttons, this feature makes a lot of sense, including the new iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. It provides a quick way to jump back to the previous application, and it appears only in contexts where it is likely the user will want to return to the previous app. It fits neatly in the status bar row.

On the iPhone X, the deep link back button still shows up, but its presence isn’t very elegant at all. As there is no space for it to fit inline with the time in the left ear area, the back button stacks directly below the time.

To be able to fit at all, it has to push the time and location indicator higher up in the status bar area than it normally sits. It feels very tacked on, like an afterthought.

The font and icon of the button have also not been changed at all on iPhone X despite the rest of the status bar receiving appropriate adjustments for the hardware ranging from new iconography, thicker font weights, and even radically different indicators in some cases (like the switch from 5 antenna dots to 4 antenna bars).

Its position at the very top of the device is another black mark. Any controls at the very top of the extra-tall iPhone X is annoying to use one-handed. It’s hard to reach and it looks pretty ugly.

Maybe a future update to iOS 11 includes some design tweaks to make the breadcrumb button fit better with the notch and the new status bar.

Perhaps they could move it to the bottom-left of the iPhone rather than the top-left. Sadly, iOS 11.2 does not bring any changes in this department.

I’d go further though. I’d suggest that the deep link back button isn’t even necessary on the iPhone X; Apple could simply remove it entirely.

Why? Because of the new multitasking gestures.

The home indicator swipes replace the need for a dedicated button in the UI to return to the previous app. On iPhone X, going back to the previous app is incredibly simple. You just swipe left to right on the home indicator area. In fact, you can keep swiping to jump between all your recent apps.

Even if you don’t want to use the shortcut, activating the full app switcher view (swipe up and briefly hold) and then tapping the previous app is far more accessible than tapping the tiny back button situated at the very top of the device.

The lack of affordance for this UI widget is one of the few areas of the iPhone X that feels sloppy. It is the ugly duckling of the top UI, situated amongst a status bar that got a ground-up rethinking for the new hardware.

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Avatar for Benjamin Mayo Benjamin Mayo

Benjamin develops iOS apps professionally and covers Apple news and rumors for 9to5Mac. Listen to Benjamin, every week, on the Happy Hour podcast. Check out his personal blog. Message Benjamin over email or Twitter.