Wrestling with Tabs

August 25, 2008 ⋅ 9 Comments »

Many of you probably know that I’m interested in tabbed browsing. For my master’s thesis, I’m conducting a study to examine how people use multiple tabs and multiple windows to organize their web browsing. At the same time, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we could improve the browser interface to address some of the problems that people run into with tabs.

In the past week or so, there’s been a flurry of discussion about how Firefox handles tabs. One of the things that’s being discussed is the Ctrl-Tab feature in Firefox. Ctrl-Tab is a shortcut that moves you the tab immediately to the right of the one you’re on. Ctrl-Shift-Tab does the opposite, and switches to the tab on the left. In Firefox 3.1 branch, this has been changed to act more like Alt-Tab on Windows and Mac OS: it switches to the tab that you were previously looking at, rather than the tab to the right.

Atul Varma mentions some of the problems with this change. The visual representation used by Ctrl-Tab uses a different ordering than the tab bar you see on your screen, which is confusing. Aza Raskin suggested a different approach that might avoid the problem, but I wonder if we are thinking about this the wrong way.

I agree with Atul’s point that showing two different orderings is confusing, but I’m not sure I agree with this:

The last page that the user is on isn’t always their locus of attention. Indeed, unless someone is rapidly switching between two places, most people don’t even remember the last web page they were on; even less relevant is the second-to-last web page they were on, and the ordering of anything older than that looks like randomness.

I’m not sure this is true. There are many studies ((e.g. Improving Web Page Revisitation: Analysis, Design and Evaluation and Web Page Revisitation Revisited: Implications of a Long-term Click-stream Study of Browser Usage)) that show that the back button is the most frequently used navigation element in the browser, and the back button is a time-based list (well, mostly ((In fact, it’s not strictly time-based. If you visit pages A -> B -> C, then use the back button to return to page A, then follow a link to page D, then you won’t be able to return to B or C using the back button))). In general, I think it’s a really natural way of accessing recently-view items.

On the other hand, tabbed browsing has completely changed the way many of us use our browsers, and I don’t know of any study that accounts for this. Switching to a different tab could be considered to be a kind of navigation action, similar to following a link or clicking the back button. This is something I’m planning to address in my study. My hunch is that heavy tab users switch tabs much more frequently than they navigate to new pages, and maybe Atul is right that a recency-based mechanism isn’t the best choice.

But is the current ordering any better? By default, Firefox puts tabs in the order in which you opened them up. (You can move them around, but I find that I rarely bother.) I agree that it’s bad to have a mismatch between the ordering in the tab bar and the Ctrl-Tab order, but to me, it makes a lot more sense to use the order in which they were last accessed, rather than the order in which they were opened.

A completely different approach that I’ve been thinking about is to get rid of “tabs” altogether in favour of a better browser history. I find that most of the time that I open a new tab, it’s because I don’t want to leave the page that I am on. Sometimes it’s because I don’t want to lose something on that page (e.g. text that I have typed into a form), and sometimes it’s simply because I find it easier to use a tab than to use the back button. If the browser had better mechanisms for returning to recently-used pages, then I might not need to use tabs at all.

Right now my desk is littered with sketches about how this might work. Later this week, I’ll post some of my ideas. In the meantime, if you’re interested in this stuff, you should check out the whole discussion:


  1. Dustin - August 25, 2008:

    Good reading. I'm excited to see where you'll go with this!

  2. Dustin - August 25, 2008:

    My two cents would be that when I spawn a new tab from a link on my current page, it doesn't take the back history of its parent page with it. At least, this is what happens in FireFox. It is as if the new page appears out of nowhere. This is very inconvenient if I've done a purge of all open tabs except the one I'm focusing on, and then I want to go back but cannot.

  3. Patrick - August 25, 2008:

    @Dustin: That's definitely a problem that I've run into before. And sometimes I want to go back to a page, but I just don't remember what tab I was in when I went to that page.

  4. Dominik Grabiec - August 26, 2008:

    I use Google's Reader quite a lot, even so far as to call it my main web browsing activity. When reading feeds I tend to open up a lot of tabs in Firefox for all of the articles I find interesting (like this one). It allows me to go through the list in the morning and have stuff ready to read when my code is compiling.

    Also I prefer having Ctrl+Tab/Ctrl+Shift+Tab go through the last used list rather than go to the next left/right tab. It seems more natural on the Windows platform where it matches the actions of other such applications. That and it mimics the Alt+Tab of Application windows with the tabs (which are like sub-windows). There's an addin for Firefox 2 and 3 called LastTab (I believe) which adds in this behaviour.

    Argh, I could go on about this, but I'm sure you've thought about these issues, and I've got work to get on with.

  5. Roo - August 26, 2008:

    I use tabs in two ways: 1) Avoid multiple browsers - I've usually got a few 'stock' pages open (google reader, bug reporting system, etc) This works well when I don't need to see the data side by side. Of course this leads to me wanting to be able to tear off a tab and start a new window at times. Oh god I can't stand the MDI model, but that's basically what tabbed browsing is. 2) As Patrick mentions, using it as a better history. - A tab is somewhere between a bookmark and the back button. - Thinking about this, there have been times when I've wanted to go back, then down a different branch of my browsing - and have been frustrated that I can't do this. (the back button is linear, and this bugs me to no end) Browsing is navigating a directed graph, and sometimes you want to mark certain nodes as interesting place holders and return to that train of thought.

    As an interesting thought experiment - try browsing for an hour without tabs. See how it feels to not have the feature. Occasionally I use the Opera browser on the NDS and it doesn't have tabs - very different experience.

  6. Erigami - August 26, 2008:

    I usually use tabs as a future, or as a bookmark.

    I use the 'future' mode when I'm reading a page and I don't want to be distracted. I open a link a new tab so that it's loaded when I'm done with the current page and I can switch to it immediately. In this scenario, I know all of my futures are to the right of the current tab that I'm reading. IE7 puts newly opened tabs immediately to the right of the current tab, which screws up my future stack.

    I treat a tab as a bookmark when I know that I'll want to come back to a page that I've opened this session (ie, documentation for something I'm working on, a specification, etc). Those are always to the left of the tab that I'm currently reading.

  7. Dubroy.com/blog - Blogging is the hardest “conversation” I’ve ever had - August 26, 2008:

    [...] Yesterday, after writing my post in reply to Atul, Aza, and co., I was thinking about how much work it is to put together a post like that. You often hear people refer to blogs as a “conversation”, but if that’s true, it’s more work than any type of conversation I’ve ever had. [...]

  8. Patrick - August 26, 2008:

    @Dominik: Interesting that you prefer the recency-based Ctrl-Tab behaviour. Myself, I think sometimes it's the right thing, sometimes it's not.

    @Roo: Yep, the things you mention totally jive with what many other people have reported to me. Surprisingly, the use cases for tabs are very similar among all the people I've talked to.

    Opera on NDS doesn't have tabs? That's weird, I thought Opera was the first browser to introduce tabs, way back in 2000. Ah...NDS is the Nintendo DS. For some reason I was thinking that was Novell's desktop Linux distro. Getting confused with Novell Directory Services I guess...

    @Erigami: "Open to the right" vs. "open at the end" is tough question. When opening up a bunch of links off the same page (like search results, Digg, etc.), I agree that I want them to go on the end of the tabs that I've already opened from that page. But if I have say 5 tabs open, and I open a link from the 2nd tab, I'd prefer the new tab to appear immediately to the right, rather than at the end of a bunch of unrelated tabs. What do you think about that case?

  9. Blogging is the hardest “conversation” I’ve ever had — Patrick Dubroy - March 3, 2009:

    [...] Yesterday, after writing my post in reply to Atul, Aza, and co., I was thinking about how much work it is to put together a post like that. You often hear people refer to blogs as a “conversation”, but if that’s true, it’s more work than any type of conversation I’ve ever had. [...]