Tabs Want to be Seen
August 20, 2008
I’ve been posting lately about how browsing in Firefox could be greatly enhanced with visual navigation. Last month, I posted about Control+Tab, a new Firefox 3.1 feature which is the first step in this direction. Now, let’s take another step by improving Control+Tab to meet the needs of more users.
Design for everyone is hard…
The hardest thing about designing for Firefox is that the solutions have to meet the needs of everyone, and everyone is different. There are generalizations that can be made about how humans tend to behave, but each person works and even thinks differently – even from moment to moment. So, good designs for Firefox should support different ways of working and thinking.
An issue with the current design of Control+Tab is that it supports one way of working but neglects others. For people that often switch between two tabs, this is an excellent quick key-stroke. But for people who switch between three or four or hundreds of tabs, it isn’t very efficient. A better system would adapt as a user’s browsing session changes and allow for multiple modes of use, drawing on the many ways our memory encodes and recalls items.
…let’s go shopping (for existing solutions)!
If you’re on Windows or Gnome/KDE, hit Alt+Tab (Cmd+Tab on Mac). What you should see is a visual preview of your running windows or applications, and likely in most-recently-used order. This display does some important things that the new Control+Tab feature doesn’t. Most importantly, it allows for visual search as well as quick-switching. If your last used item is in your short-term memory, it’s a quick keystroke to flip back to it – just like Control+Tab. However, if you have an idea of what something looks like, just visually scan to the match. If your item is recent, tab over to it – if not select it with your cursor. Another benefit of this system is that it gives you a survey of your whole inventory so you can get a sense of not only what kinds of items are open, but how much content there is. This is a positive solution for operating systems, and I believe it’s a positive solution for Firefox too.
This method even integrates well with operating system seach: Cmd, Alt, and Ctrl are all near each other, so you change between OS-wide and browser-wide preview by a shift of the thumb. It could also be designed to have a visual look identical to the current OS previews.
This new version would also solve some of the general problems with Control+Tab, such as only showing three previews at once and having to wait for distracting animations. Also, by introducing grid-view, the linear view of Control+Tab would no longer compete visually with the linear list of tabs in the shelf chrome.
This is, like the previous Control-Tab, is only a step in the right direction. There will be plenty more to do from here. For instance, application icons are recognizable and therefore don’t need labels – tabs probably do. There are also ways to enable search and content organization from this window eventually – but I’ll blog about that later. For now, I just want to continue the discussion on Control+Tab that’s currently going on in bugs and hopefully reach a consensus on what to build for 3.1.