Contextual Words like “Continue” are Usability Poison

The word “Continue” is contextual, so depending on your frame of mind, “Continue” can have many different meanings. During our latest usability study, 3 out of 10 test subjects ran into this issue one or more times.

Let’s say you’re running an online bookstore and your visitor is in the state of mind that “I want to complete this purchase now”, then using “Continue” as part of your button text will be read as “continue to the next step in the process”, more specifically, “continue to checkout”. However, if that visitor’s state of mind is “I need to buy two more books”, then “Continue” will be read as “continue shopping”.

The solution is of course fairly straight-forward, simply avoid using contextual words like “continue” in your links and buttons. It may seem like a small thing but never underestimate the importance of copywriting.

Got any tips on copywriting or examples of what to avoid? Let me know by posting a comment.

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Authored by Christian Holst

Published on March 15, 2010

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So true! Don’t make them guess at what ‘continue’ means.

Another example is ‘back’ Back to last page? Back to search results? Where?


Exactly, “Back” is another great example of how confusing contextual words can be.

Often these words only make sense to the people who developed the site.

Back is also an issue, but less so. Assuming that I can only arrive at a apge with a “back” from one point (haven’t seen instances to the contrary) then the contextual flow is more clear with a “back” since the user knows how they arrived at this page and what the previous page was.

While “Back” is perhaps a little less of an issue than “Continue”, it’s still a problem.

I’ve browsed many sites and use multiple applications where the same page could be accessed from multiple destinations, making “Back” unclear. Especially if you arrive from an external source like a search result.

I try to avoid words like best, fastest, strongest, superior, wonderful, etc. Unless you can back those up with specifics as to why something is wonderful or the best they tend to put doubt in your readers minds.

I totally agree, but I wonder if there’s any data on this. Love: “Do X… Fast!”, Hate: “The fastest way to do X”

The claim here is that these words by themselves pose a problem, and not when used in a clear statement (like the “Continue Shopping” example right at the top of this post, which clearly and exactly answers the confusion conundrum posed in the second paragraph), right?. To me, similar constructions such as “Back To Home” or “Cancel Purchase” or “Discard This Item” all seem like pretty clear descriptions of an action behind a button. “Continue” is a perfectly nice verb with a clear meaning, as long as it is accompanied by some other words to clarify what activity the control facilitates continuing.

Hi Mike,
Yes what we saw during user testing was that even when used in a clear statement it still posed a problem. In fact the image in the article is a screenshot of HobbyTrons continue-button which was one of the buttons that caused problems for some of the test subject even though it was a “clear” statement.

My speculation is that the test subjects only read the first word and then interacted before finishing the sentence (or alternatively made up their mind about what the button did before reading the whole sentence and then ignored what they read afterwards). An eyetracking test could reveal if this is the case. If so then it would help to place the ambiguous words last in the button text.

PS. It goes without saying that the problems was observed to be much worse on the sites that only used “Continue”, compared to “Continue Shopping”. So while it’s a good start to use clear statements it dosen’t solve the problem entirely.

I’m trying to think of what label you could possibly give a link or button that takes you “back” to the products. We know people click on them (as opposed to simply using the site-wide navigation), but what else could you possibly call it?
“Back to shop” has “back” in it
“Keep shopping” where “keep” has the same meaning as “continue”
“Shop more” has no context… what does this mean?

If you have someone looking at their shopping cart, but are not further into a checkout process, and you have a link that would take people OUT of the cart, NOT lose the items they’ve placed in there, and BACK to where they were (the shop-section, not the admin/cart section), I honestly can’t think of any text that is useful that doesn’t use directional context. People do “move” through a site.

And a button or link saying something like “back to the shop” or “continue shopping” gives me a feeling that, yes, I can go look for more products without losing what I’ve already got in my basket, which is a low-level fear I tend to have when I navigate away from a cart/basket and haven’t checked out or paid for anything. Especially if I’m there anonymously (not signed in), that button confirms that there’s some kind of cookie or session or something that will remember my old items.

What are good alternatives to words like “Continue” and “Back”? For continuing to checkout, simply “Checkout” works and is probably best.

But what to use if you mean “continue shopping”? “Shop” strikes me as unclear. “Shop some more” seems clumsy, and maybe too colloquial. And “Give us more of your money” is too long. ;-)

“Return to …” is a clearer verb, but funny it’s not used in popular commerce sites. “Return to [shopping/home/results]”. In our usability, we’ve yet to encounter an issue with our use of “Back to [profile/results”.