Firefox Would Love to Read Your Mind

July 21, 2011

I’d like to highlight the awesome research project that intern Lilian Weng is leading around Firefox’s new tab page.

While our goal is to make users more efficient at their browsing tasks, what makes them more efficient is a question we keep returning to. Most other browsers display links on new tab pages based on frecency. Frecency is a portmanteau which combines frequency and recency. At Mozilla, we use it to refer to sites that users have been to often, recently, or both. It’s how we calculate what should be the first, second, third, etc site that appears when you type a letter into Firefox’s URL bar.

Using frecency to list links on a new tab page seems an obvious design direction, but we want to truly investigate whether another solution would be best for users. So, Lilian is spinning up a brave new study. Once her test is ready, users of Test Pilot, our platform for collecting structured feedback on Firefox, will be asked if they’d like to participate in a new study. If they say yes, they will be randomly assigned one of six new designs on their new, blank Firefox tabs. One of these six designs will be our control group: a blank white tab, just as Firefox users see currently. The other five will look almost identical to each other. They will display a simple 8×8 grid of favicons set on a button which is colored to highlight them based on a color-matching algorithm designed by Margaret Leibovic:

Minimal 8x8 Grid Layout of Site Links

The only variable that will be changing among the five designs is which sites are displayed in this grid. Here’s the five variations we’re testing:

  1. Frecency. A combination of a user’s most frequently and most recently visited sites.
  2. Most recently bookmarked sites. By displaying prominently what a user has recently starred, we effectively turn the new tab page into a read it later list.
  3. Most recently closed sites. This could lead users to treat new tab page as an undo feature, or close tabs in order to temporarily store them in the new tab page as a short-term read it later list.
  4. Sites based on content similarity. Intern Abhinav Sharma is trying out his project, called Predictive Newtabs, which displays sites based on where the user has opened a new tab from. For instance, if the user has been browsing a news site, a new tab would offer other news sites the user has been to.
  5. Sites based on groups of sites frequently visited together. In another part of Abhinav’s Predictive Newtabs experiments, he has designed an algorithm to predict sites to show based on sites users visit in groups. For instance, if every time you get to work you first check the weather and then check stock prices, this new tab would offer you a stock page on a new tab after you checked the weather. If you want to try this experiment out yourself, you can download the Jetpack here.

The above study is still in preparation, and once it goes live I predict that we’ll learn tons of valuable information about how new tab suggestions can positively impact users. Lilian will be collecting data on many aspects of users’ responses to these designs, such as how they effect the breadth of sites users visit, how likely they are to click on each item in the grid, and how long they spend deciding where to navigate. I can’t wait to start pouring over the data that comes back: it’s very new research in an area that has a profound impact on how we use the web.

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11 Responses to “Firefox Would Love to Read Your Mind”

  1. msujaws Says:

    Very exciting! Do you know how long the study will run for?


  2. These little icons are so sweet!

  3. Pierre Says:

    Sounds really interesting, but… do you know why Test Pilot / Feedback is not compatible with 8.0+ versions (nightly channel) ?


  4. Your thoughts about new tab are really great!

    I would like to see most of those variations in Firefox.
    – Frecency could find his way to Home tab.
    – Most recently bookmarked sites are already available in the not-very-tydied-up bookmarks menu. In my opinion it would be good to make a panorama group into a bookmark group.
    – most recently closed sites: Please add this feature as it is in Opera: In a recycle bin button
    -predictive new tab is best for new tab. You could also add suggestions for search querys.

  5. jonoscript Says:

    Pierre: I’ve got an update to Test Pilot/Feedback coming out soon (before the study is launched!) which will fix the compatibility problem.

  6. naylor83 Says:

    I love the fact that you at Mozilla are researching this seriously instead of just throwing it in like most others have done.

    What is vital, which I’m sure you’re aware of, is that this fancy new tab page loads instantly. As fast as a blank page, or faster 😉 This happens to be one of my biggest beefs with Chrome. The new tab page there feels sluggish, while Fx on the same computer opens new tabs instantly.

    Also, I really like the fact that you’ve arrived at using the favicons instead of minitures of the rendered websites. We are much more trained to quickly identify sites based on favicons, from using tabs and bookmarks. Also, favicons will be lighter and quicker to load and display than website thumbnails.

    OT: BTW, what is this comment system/plugin you use?

  7. Pierre Says:

    Thank you Jono ! I’m happy about it. One of the reasons I use Nightly is to help Mozilla team test new / early iterations of the browser, so it was a bit frustrating these latest weeks to not be able to send precious information to devs and UX researchers 😉

  8. EuroSkept1C Says:

    Why you always have a tendency toward the old-fashioned styles? At least, I hope the Win version will have same design and won’t be excessively curved, like buttons, urlbar, tabs, bars generally etc. Turn every corner to 2px border-radius max! 🙂

    Are you ever thinking to modernize something? Anyway…

    I’ll definitely participate, although, the first options seem the most obvious for me already.

  9. gxg Says:

    That’s a actually 4×4 grid, not 8×8.
    Having used Predictive NewTab already, all I can say is that I’m not at all impressed. The suggested sites are too close to the last active tab. When I open a new tab, I am usually navigating to something different, not to the same sites I was reading.


  10. One thing to look out for is to make sure that Firefox is better at reading users’ minds than they are at reading their minds. The task, of knowing where you want to go next, seems *way* easier for the human user to do than the computer to do. So you want to complement the user’s intelligence, not try to replace it. That also suggests interactivity is key–letting the user customize, tune, or otherwise interact with the suggestions.


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