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:
- Atul Varma: Tab Navigation: Tradeoffs
- Aza Raskin: Control-Tab Woes
- Jenny Boriss: Tabs Want to be Seen and Tab View vs. Application View
- and Danielle Fong has a monster post about tabs and multitasking, and suggests some ideas that are pretty similar to what I’ve been thinking: Enhancing Multitasking to Enhance Our Minds