Trouble with “previous” and “next”

WordPress does it, and so does Yahoo. So I’ll have to adjust. It’s counterintuitive for me, though, and I think the people who live in this time warp are not using a Mac, and live in a non-time-based world.

from www.ephemeris.comHere’s what I’m talking about: When I’m moving through posts and emails, I think of “next” as those more recent than the page I am on, and “previous” as those earlier in time. So, for me, my next email will come soon, and my previous post was yesterday’s.

Not so with WordPress and Yahoo. If I have moved backwards into March’s posts, clicking on “next” moves me further back, into Februrary’s posts. Clicking on “previous” means the previous page, pushing me into the future, into April’s posts.

The reason, I suppose, is that “next” and “previous” don’t refer to the time the posts were written, but which page they are on. To me, this means that the coders, or IT developers are not thinking of how their audience uses the software, but how they see it. A programmer sees information on pages, and the placement of the pages themselves are important. Most users, I would guess, see the date and time they wrote it as important, or perhaps the content, which doesn’t come up as an issue at all.

If you are looking for a post, or a check, or a file on your computer, and you can’t use content as a locater, you will use the date you wrote it, often in conjunction with other dates or events.

“Let’s see, I wrote that right after I saw Atonement, but before we painted the kitchen,” is a time statement. I can’t imagine someone saying, “I stored that on the third page back from the beginning,” because that isn’t a set place. The more posts you add, the farther back the posts slip.

It’s an information design question, and the user-friendly ones will stay time-based. We can use the arrows to move to the last page seen, but “previous” should retain the meaning it’s always had–“before this moment in time.”

Image: book, “The Caldendar” from

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at (c) 2008, Quinn McDonald All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “Trouble with “previous” and “next”

  1. I sent my very first SMS the other day, a very brief love letter to my wife on our 41st anniversary. It took me about 15 minutes. The phone kept trying to HELP me, with words I didn’t want. I couldn’t erase or convince it to stop. For example, I started to type Happy anniversary, with, of course, H, which turned into Hi! I could only erase the H, not the i. When I just said heck with it and kept typing H, I got High. I finally went deep into the menu, found the proper menu feature, and turned off ‘help.’

    As for going to next and previous, I’ve just gotten used to it. As you say, Q, it’s spatial, not temporal. Bear in mind though, that (at least on Yahoo) you can arrange e-mails in order received, in reverse of that order, alphabetically, etc. Then you need a more universal, or neutral sense of direction, although I would probably reverse ‘next’ and ‘previous.’

    ====> Ah, you don’t have an iPhone. After I owned it a week, it learned the words I use. So it never tries to turn me into a geek anymore. For me, it’s never Sonoma, it’s always Sedona, and it took it a while, but it got it. On the iPhone, you can accept or reject the words it offers you, but alas, in the only thing I don’t like about the phone, if you DON’T want to word, you touch the word on the screen. And that, for me, feels more like accepting it. -Q

  2. I once asked a programmer two questions: 1. Why do you press “start” to shut down the or “turn off” the computer. 2. Why didn’t the guy (it must have been a guy) who wrote “Fatal exception error at Module 00011135783910919, Kernel 183834319083” just use the same space to write “Your computer has a problem. Shutting down and rebooting should fix it.” He just laughed goofily and shrugged.

    ===> That is so true. Before my iPhone, I had a phone that made no sense. You pushed the red “off” button to turn it on and the “send” button to answer a call. While the iPhone is a lot more intuitive, it has some flaws, too. When you are composing an email or text message, it wants to complete your words for you. The word appears in small type, if you want that word instead of the one you typed, you touch the space bar; if you don’t want that word, you touch it. Now, to me, touching it is like choosing it. I don’t know how often I’ve inserted the wrong word by touching it. Grrr. -Q

  3. Exactly! Which is why I like looking at posts from the comment page, where the left pointing arrow goes to the post “to the left” on the timeline and the right pointing arrow (when there is one) goes to the next one chronologically.

    ===> Now that I’ve written this, I’m noticing page placement, arrows, and words, and am so much more aware that navigating is more often thought of as by the designer as a spatial relationship, not a time-based one. Interesting. -Q

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