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.

This past Friday, I went to Westfield Mall in San Francisco to conduct user tests on how people browse the web, and especially how (or if) they use tabs. This was part of a larger investigation some Mozillians are doing to learn about users’ tab behavior.

The mall is a fantastic place to find user test participants, because the range of technical expertise varies widely. Also, the people I encountered tended to be bored out of their minds, impatiently waiting for their partners to shop or friends to meet them. However, rather than completing all 20 tests I was hoping to, I ended up spending three hours testing a man I’ll call Joe.

I find Joe, a 60-year-old hospital cafeteria employee, in the food court looking suitably bored out of his mind. Joe agrees to do a user test, so I begin by asking my standard demographics questions about his experience with the internet. Joe tells me he’a never used a computer, and my eyes light up. It’s very rare in San Francisco to meet a person who’s not used a computer even once, but such people are amazingly useful. It’s a unique opportunity to see what someone who hasn’t been biased by any prior usage reacts. I ask Joe if I could interview him more extensively, and he agrees.

I decide to first expose Joe to the three major browsers. I begin by pulling up Internet Explorer.

Internet Explorer (as Joe encountered it)

Me: “Joe, let’s pretend you’ve sat down at this computer, and your goal is finding a local restaurant to eat at.”

Joe: “But I don’t know what to do.”

Me: “I know, but I want you to approach this computer like you approach a city you’re not familiar with. I want you to investigate and look around try and figure out how it works. And I want you to talk out loud about what you’re thinking and what you’re trying.”

(I show Joe how to use a mouse. He looks skeptical, but takes it in his hand and stares at the screen.)

Joe: “I don’t know what anything means.”

(Joe reads the text on IE and clicks on “Suggested Sites”)

Me: “Why did you click on that?”

Joe: “I don’t really know what to do, so I thought this would suggest something to me.”

(Joe reads a notification that there are no suggestions because the current site is private)

Joe: “I guess not.”

Joe looks around a bit more, but he’s getting visibly frustrated with IE, so I move on to Firefox.

Firefox (as Joe encountered it)

I give him the same task: find a local restaurant. He stares at the screen for awhile with his hand off the mouse, looking confused. I ask what he’s looking for. “I don’t know, anything that looks like it will help!” he says.  Finally, he reads the Apple context menu at the top of the screen, and his gaze falls on the word Help.

“Help, that’s what I need!” says Joe. He clicks on Help, but looks disappointed at what he sees in the menu.

“None of these can help me,” he says.

Joe is getting frustrated again, so I move on to Chrome and give him the same task.

Chrome (as Joe encountered it)

He proceeds to read all of the words on Chrome’s new tab page, looking for any that may offer guidance. Luckily for Joe, he spies a link to Yelp which is marked San Francisco in Chrome’s new tab page. He clicks it, and, seeing restaurants, declares he’s won.

I want to put Joe through other experiments at this point, but the tests are clearly taxing him. He looks very agitated, and has frequently in the tests declared that he “just doesn’t know,” “should have learned this by now,” and “has no excuse for not taking a class on computers.” No amount of assurance that I was testing software, not him, was calming him down. So, I decide to cut Joe a break. “Alright Joe, you’ve helped me, maybe I can help you.”

Because Joe has mentioned a few times he wants email, I get him a gmail.com email address and show him how to access it at a public computer. We practice logging into Gmail several times, and I end up writing a very explicit list of steps for Joe which includes items like “move mouse cursor to white box.” One of the hardest things to relate to Joe is the idea that you must first click in a text field in order to type.

When I am convinced that Joe understands how to check his email, I want to show him how he can use his new email address. So, I ask him why he had asked for an email address in the first place. I imagine he’ll say he wants to communicate with friends and relatives.

Joe: “I want discounts at Boudin Bakery.”

Me: “Sorry, what?”

Joe: “I want Boudin discounts, but they keep telling me I need email.”

(Joe takes his Boudin Bakery customer appreciation card out of his wallet and shows it to me)

I’m a little confused, but go ahead and register Joe’s Boudin Bakery card with his new email address. I show him the web summary of all the bread he’s bought lately. “Woah!” says Joe.

So, what did I learn from Joe?

  • There is little modern applications do to guide people who have never used a computer. Even when focusing on new users, designers tend to take for granted that users understand basic concepts such as cursors, text boxes, and buttons. And, perhaps, rightfully so – if all software could accommodate people like Joe, it would be little but instructions on how to do each new task. But, Joe was looking for a single point of help in an unfamiliar environment, and he never truly got it – not even in a Help menu
  • No matter their skill level, users will try to make sense of a new situation by leveraging what they know about previous situations. Joe knew nothing about computers, so he focused on the only item he recognized: text.  Icons, buttons, and interface elements Joe ignored completely
  • We shouldn’t assume that new users will inquisitively try and discover how new software works by clicking buttons and trying things out. Joe found using software for the first time to be frightening and only continued at my reassurance and (sometimes) insistence. If he was on his own in an internet cafe, I think he would have given up and left after a minute or so.  Giving visual feedback and help if someone is lost may help people like Joe feel they’re getting somewhere
  • Don’t make too many assumptions about how users will benefit from your technology – they may surprise you!

Whenever you open a new tab in Firefox, your goal is to navigate somewhere.  To aid your navigation, on this new tab Firefox currently offers you… nothing.  Just a blank page.  100% white, and 100% not useful.

Firefox has been displaying this blank page when users open a new tab for as long as there’s been a new tab.  And, partially, it’s deliberate.  After all, a blank page is guaranteed not to distract you from your current task.  It’s just clean and white, like a canvas, offering no suggestions for the next move and no distractions from it.  Alex Faaborg explains very well in his recent blog post the concerns we have with distracting users and the ways that data overload on a new tab page can be harmful.

This isn’t the case when you open a new tab in other browsers.  Opera was the first to offer a “Speed Dial” with giant thumbnails linking users to their most frequented sites.  Safari’s giant wall-o-televisions offers much the same.  Chrome has played around with different designs, first trying a speed dial like Opera’s and later integrating other content, such as apps.  Internet Explorer, the most unusual of the designs, offers you some options: reopen closed tabs and sessions, start private browsing, or use an “Accelerator,” which usually means do “something with Bing.”

What happens when you open a new tab in different browsers

So, which approach is best for our users?  Would presenting large thumbnail targets to direct people to sites they frequently visit save them time?  Could we present information to make it easier for users to navigate to their next destination?  Can we do so without being distracting and leading users away from the task they had in mind?

We realized that we couldn’t answer these questions without finding out more about our users.  So, a few people at Mozilla are heading up studies to find out how people use tabs and how different designs of new tab page effect how they browse and user the web.

Here’s what’s going down:

1. Quantitative study through Test Pilot on what users do after opening a new tab

Intern Lilian Weng is currently working on a quantitative study within Test Pilot to capture data on what users do after they open a new tab.  This should answer questions surrounding user intention when opening a new tab, and possibly how long users take to perform actions after opening a new tab.

2. A/B test of a new tab page vs. blank new tab

Interns Diyang Tang and Lilian Weng are preparing to do an A/B test using Test Pilot to determine how user behavior differs when presented with a new tab page vs. none.  They are attempting to answer questions such as:

– Does a new tab page slow users down (e.g., by distracting them), or speed them up (e.g., help them find the target site faster)?
– Does a new tab page discourage breadth in visited sites?
– How do users navigate to a website after they open a new tab in each scenario? (location bar, search bar, top sites, bookmarks, history, etc.)
– Are there users who are more mouse-based and some who are more keyboard-based? How does a new tab page affect them?

3. Cafe testing for current Firefox

Diane Loviglio and myself are preparing more qualitative “cafe” tests to gain insight into how people use tabs currently.  We’d like to know why and when users open new tabs in a more contextual perspective than Test Pilot data provides.  Our goal is to find a wide enough range of users that the most common new tab behaviors can be grouped and discussed in a more tractable framework.

4. Testing multiple new tab page designs

Once the research from tests 1-3 is available, variations on new tab pages will be implemented and tried out with real users.  There are multiple testing methods that could be useful here, such as a multivariate testing or even journaling to gain insight into how new tab pages effect behavior of a user over time.

5. Creating a contextual speel dial implementation

Not quite a research project, but intern Abhinav Sharma is designing and implementing an experimental new tab page which uses contextual information about a user’s current browsing session to offer suggestions.  His page makes intelligent recommendations about where you’re likely to go next based on where you’ve been.  The project’s still in alpha, but you can see the code he’s done already for a basic speed dial implementation on his github.

You’ll notice that a lot of this work is being done by our awesome new Summer 2011 interns!  It’s only early June and they’re already rocking hard.

I’ll post what we learn from these studies as results come in.  I predict we’ll gain some insight into user behavior that will inform not only Firefox’s new tab design, but many other features besides!

Updating software sucks.  For most of your software, you’d probably prefer to never think about updating.  Ideally, your applications  would stay current and fast on their own without ever requiring your input.

That’s why one of the important changes in Firefox 4’s add-ons manager is keeping add-ons up-to-date automatically.  This happens in the background without you even noticing.

Automatically updating add-ons does exactly what users have been telling us they’d like for a long time.  However, some users will want to manually update their add-ons, as they did before Firefox 4.  Other users will want to automatically update some add-ons but not others.

Hard as it is to cater to many use cases, we felt it was important to allow users to manually update add-ons if they prefer.  Add-on updates are essentially new software, and users should always have the ability to opt out of them.

Below is the basic use case of managing add-on updates I’m proposing for Firefox 5 (which is only a few weeks after the release of Firefox 4 thanks to our new shorter release cycles).  The user begins with completely automatic updates on by default.  By switching to manual updates in the advanced menu, the user can go back to installing updates themselves.  Each add-on shows, in its detailed pane, whether it receives updates automatically or manually.

However, there’s another kind of usage that needs to be supported.  What if a user wants all but a few add-ons updated automatically?  Or, all but a few add-ons updated manually?  Allowing users to switch any particular add-on between manual and automatic updating allows users to make one-off exceptions.

If a user goes to the detailed pane of add-on, they can see how an add-on is currently updating and switch it to the other method.  To change <i>all</i> add-ons to the other method, the user needs to select that option in the advanced panel.  This way, we allow users to make both blanket rules and exceptions as they go.  Here’s a more complete diagram showing updating preferences, with one-off exceptions included:

As we approach the release of Firefox 4, the last few polish and stylistic changes are happening in the add-ons manager.  Some are simply graphic cleanup, while others are the result of beta testing the new manager for the past several months.

I wanted to highlight one change in particular that you’ll be seeing in the Firefox nightlies soon.  The date an add-on was last updated, rather than being displayed in list view, will now only appear in the detailed view of an add-on.  This also means that installed add-ons can no longer be sorted by last updated date.

Old vs New Add-ons Manager: Removal of Sorting Bar and Last Updated Date

For some users, this change is substantive and will feel disruptive.  So, I wanted to give the rationale behind this design decision.

1. Providing a simplified overview

The intended purpose of the add-on manager’s list view is to give a brief overview of the users’ add-ons and to provide only the minimal, most used information and functionality.  This minimal information is the name of an add-on, its icon, and a short description.  The minimal functionality is the ability to disable and remove an add-on.  Even the author name we’ve removed to provide the simplest, most visually scannable design.  By removing the last updated date, we not only visually clean an add-on’s list entry, but also eliminate the need for a sorting bar at the top of list view.  This gives back both whitespace and a cleaner appearance at the top of the list.

2. Updated date does not provide important functionality for most users

For most users, the last updated date does not give information meaningful enough to justify its placement in list view.  It allows users to see which add-ons have been updated automatically most recently, but does not give any details about the updates nor provide tools to interpret the information.

Some advanced users use the last updated date as a diagnostic tool to identify which add-on updates may be causing a recent problem in Firefox.  However, the date makes a very poor diagnostic tool. One reason is that the date does not give any information about the size nor scope of the update, and thus can only be used for diagnosis by disabling one add-on at a time to isolate a problem.  In many cases, a problem in Firefox caused by an add-on are instantly identifiable as being caused by a particular add-on.  Even in the rare case where a problem suddenly appears in Firefox, the chances of it being from an add-on update are not large.  A problem could be caused by any number of online events, which is why Firefox provides tools such as the Error Console and about:crashes to help diagnose them.  And, even if we were to give fuller information about updates in the add-ons manager and make it into a better diagnostic tool, why should this tool be so far removed from other diagnostic tools?  How could a new user figure out that, to access diagnostic tools related to add-ons, they should go to the add-ons manager rather than a more comprehensive diagnostic tool?  It would be wildly inefficient to apply this elsewhere in Firefox by placing diagnostic tools only on the interface elements they relate to.

What we should do is add diagnostic tools about add-ons to comprehensive tools such as about:support.  Then, we could  provide expert users the information they want in a better format while keeping one-off diagnosis away from list view in the add-ons manager.

3. The goal of removing updating entirely for most users

The intended purpose of automatic updates is to remove updating from the list of items the user has to care about and remember.  By exposing the updated date in list view, Firefox insinuates both that the updated date is very important that this is a process the user should manage.

Actually, the actual reason sorting and the last updated date were initially proposed in the add-ons manager design was to give users the ability to sort their add-ons by performance, not updated date.  Sorting by performance would allow users to find out how their add-ons effect Firefox on metrics such as startup time and memory.  However, the ability to rank an add-on’s performance is going to be a part of FIrefox after the 4.0 release, making the remaining sorting categories (alphabetic and updated date) much less useful.

By the way, Firefox 4 beta 10 is out, so please try it out and tell us what you think!

Firefox 4 is right around the corner, and the Firefox’s community and team are working their butts off to make it as awesome as possible. The blocker list is going down every day, and the browser’s looking better than ever.

However, with everyone putting so much effort towards blockers, there are less people available to help with polish bugs for the add-ons manager. In particular, there’s a handful of bugs – mostly in CSS – that would take the add-ons manager from good to awesome. If you know CSS and are interested in helping with a feature used by millions, please consider taking a look at one of the remaining bugs. Not only will you be hailed as the people’s hero (by me anyway), but you’ll be helping millions of people customize their browsing experience.

Here’s a diagram of the remaining add-ons manager polish bugs:


If you need any information or help, comment I’ll get in touch with you!

One of the best reasons to use Firefox is with thousands of add-ons available to customize it, you can turn it into exactly the browser you want. To make it easier for you to find and use add-ons, members of the Firefox team and community have been working to redesign the add-ons manager for Firefox 4.0. The new add-ons manager will be easier to use, sleeker, and faster than ever before.

Here are a few highlights of the new design:

Add-ons update automatically

No more warnings when your add-ons are out of date; Firefox will now update them automatically. This should happen without you even noticing, keeping add-ons safe and fast while eliminating the hassle of updating.

Make changes to add-ons without restarting

Restarting your browser is a pain. Developers can now build their add-ons for Firefox 4 such that no restart is required; add-ons built using the Add-on SDK get this for free. Restartless add-ons can be installed, modified, and removed without a single restart needed! More and more restartless add-ons are being created and made available on addons.mozilla.org every day.

Add-on manager in a tab, not a window


Instead of managing your add-ons in a small, separate window, the add-ons manager now loads in a tab. This means it won’t be so small and easily lost among other windows, and you can interact with it identically to other tabs, including resizing and moving.

New Get Add-ons pane

Justin Scott has been leading a project to create a new section in the add-ons manager we call the Get Add-ons pane. In the old add-ons manager, we displayed five featured add-ons that could be installed. This was done to show you some examples of add-ons – much like buying a picture frame with a stock photo already inside. Justin’s done a thorough revamp of Get Add-ons, building a page which introduces you to the concept of add-ons, highlights particular add-ons that are editorially selected, and helps you explore and discover other add-ons that match your interests. Justin’s currently working on a new feature for this pane which makes personal recommendations of add-ons you might enjoy based on which add-ons you already have installed.

Quickly find any add-on

If you want to make a change to an add-on but don’t know which category it’s in, you can now simply search for it in the new global search box. The add-ons manager can quickly locate an installed add-on or find you some matching add-ons that are available to install.

If you’re using Firefox’s nightly builds, you can already see many of the above changes in action. Blair McBride has recently put a lot of work into the new theme change, so now we’re working on the final few bugs and polish. If you’ve already used the new add-on manager, please share your thoughts by commenting or leaving a message on Firefox 4.0’s feedback page!