The future of tabbed browsing

June 25, 2008 ⋅ 4 Comments »

For my master’s thesis, I’m looking at how people use multiple windows and tabs to organize their web browsing. I’m especially interested in tabs. I’m a pretty heavy tab user myself, and I while I can’t live without tabs (in today’s browsers), I also think that tabs introduce some problems of their own.

In my research, there are two main questions that I’d like to answer. First, what are the problems that people encounter with tabbed browsing? And second, how exactly do people use tabbed browsing? What strategies do they use, and why? The answers to these questions could guide the future design of web browsers.

Great minds think alike

It just so happens that I’m not the only person interested in this. Mike Beltzner put me in touch with a bunch of people at Mozilla who have been thinking along similar lines, and I thought I’d point you guys to some of the interesting things they’ve been posting.

The closest thing to the work I’m doing is Bryan Clark’s post about how and why people use tabs. Bryan is working on the UI for Thunderbird, the Mozilla mail client. They’re interested in understanding the use cases for tabs, in order to support similar use cases in Thunderbird. He’s collecting his data informally; I’m hoping to get similar data, but in a more formal way.

Big changes…

On the Humanized blog more than a year ago, Aza Raskin wrote about the problem with tab scrolling, and challenged his readers to come up with a better solution. Lots of interesting thoughts in the comments, especially the idea of implimenting “tabs” as a single, infinitely long document (perhaps inspired by Aza’s father Jef‘s ideas).

That was last summer; more recently, since he’s joined Mozilla, Aza’s been looking at interfaces for mobile browsers. To check out some of the ideas he’s playing with, check out his post on Firefox mobile concepts. I really like the idea of implementing tabs in a zooming UI — it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

…and smaller changes

Since he’s currently focusing on mobile, Aza’s prototypes are a bit more radical than we’ll probably ever see in the desktop version of Firefox. But Jenny Boriss and Madhava Enros are looking at both big and small ways to improve the tabbed browsing experience on the desktop. Boriss starts by listing some of the problems with tabs, and suggests some possible ways to fix the problem: check out her post here.

Inspired by Boriss’ post, Madhava comes at the problem from a different angle, “crushing it, finally, in something we like to call the pincing crab-claw of good design”: see here. Boriss follows up with a great post, incorporating some of Madhava’s ideas, which discusses ways that future versions of Firefox might better support visual navigation. These ideas are a bit more down-to-earth, maybe; it’s easier to see them being added to a future version of Firefox.

Coming Soon?

If you’re interested in how this will all play out in the next version of Firefox, check out this wiki page. Mozilla has assembled a critical mass of talented UI people, and I’m really interested to see what they come up with in future versions of my favourite browser. If you have any thoughts, I know they’d love to get your opinion.

As for me, I’ll be posting some of my own ideas soon, and will hopefully have some empirical data in the next couple of months to back some of these ideas up. Until then, I’ll keep you posted.


  1. Paul Irish - June 25, 2008:

    Because I dont see it here or on Aza's post... I'll point you to Scrolltabs..

    Clever, but its certainly not how I'd want to navigate. It also runs into a problem with sites that implement infinite scroll, like

  2. Boris Bokowski - June 26, 2008:

    Hi Patrick, I am pushing to get Eclipse use a more browser-like model for managing its editor tabs and very interested in all of this. Please do keep us posted! Boris

  3. Patrick - June 27, 2008:

    Paul: Thanks for the link. Wasn't that linked in the comments of Aza's first post? I thought it was. Anyways, good idea to have a direct link.

    Yeah, it's not necessarily something I would want to use either, but I think it's a cool idea, and it's an example of some really original thinking about how to deal with tabs.

  4. Patrick - June 27, 2008:

    Boris: Good point. As I've been thinking about this stuff, I've also had Eclipse in the back of my mind. Certainly the workflow would be different in an IDE, but it's definitely worth thinking about what kind of overlap there might be.

    Anyone happen to know of some good studies that have looked at the (re)visitation patterns in IDEs, especially ones that support tabs?