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:

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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!

I’d like to give a few updates on the continued implementation of Firefox 4’s new add-ons manager. As development work continues, some parts of the manager’s functionality have been adjusted and updated since I last posted mockups. Here are a few highlights of what’s been going on.

Add-on Specific Notifications

Each add-on in the manager could have one of several notifications that only pertain to itself. How can it be made clear when an add-on needs attention or action? Stephen Horlander first experimented with adding subtle coloring and diagonal stripes to each add-on. In the latest nightlies, this method is expanded to give the full range of add-on notifications. Red and yellow signify different levels of potential problems, while grey and green signify when an add-on requires attention or action.

Here’s a mockup of what these notifications would look like in the manager:

In Detail View, where only one add-on is visible, notifications appear at the top of the pane.

Global Add-on Notifications

Notifications that relate to all add-ons now display in the scope bar (bug 566194). The color of global notifications follows the same scheme as notifications for individual add-ons.

Hiding Browser Navigation Widgets

The design of the add-ons manager is enhanced by displaying only relevant parts of the browser chrome and hiding those that don’t relate to the page (such as the URL bar and reload button). Some benefits of doing this  include:

  • Presenting a minimal, clean UI
  • Creating a distinctive in-content page that no other site can mimic – vital because of the far-reaching changes which can be made within in-content pages
  • The user only sees actions that they can take. Reload, for instance, is needless on a page that’s locally hosted
  • Space in the navigation bar normally used for browsing buttons can be repurposed for widgets useful for in-page content. For instance, the URL bar space can be used in future Firefox versions to present breadcrumb navigation for in-page content.

Progress towards removing browser navigation widgets is being tracked in bug 571970. Unfortunately, this will only work when Firefox is in its default tabs-on-top mode. Removing elements for tabs-on-bottom configurations involves changing the entire theme of Firefox substantially.  In order for fast tab switching to remain possible, tabs would need to remained aligned in tabs-on-bottom mode while still preserving the minimal style of in-content pages. This will be the goal for a future version of Firefox.

Downloading Add-ons within the Manager

If you run Firefox nightlies, you may have noticed that if you install an add-on from within the add-ons manager, the installation process happens fully within the manager.  By turning the download button into a progress bar, the user’s focus need not move; the relevant information for the download is where the user was looking in order to prompt the download. After the add-on is downloaded, a notification will display on its entry alerting the user that either the installation is complete or that a restart is needed.

A notification will appear over themes and backgrounds when they are fully implemented in the manager.  These and other changes that only effect the style of themes and backgrounds will be implemented in future versions of Firefox after 4.

Add-on Installation Process

We’ve also streamlined the process of installing an add-on from a website for Firefox 4. The new design uses Firefox 4’s new arrow notification panels to minimize the number of steps required. When the user begins an add-on installation, the download now begins automatically. For most users, this should only take a second or two. The user then sees the name, author, and source of the add-on, and has the option of allowing the installation of the downloaded add-on. Firefox only obtains this information about add-ons once they have partially downloaded, which is why the full information is presented after the download completes. Though the add-on file has already downloaded at this point, the file is not accessed unless the user allows it to be.

If the add-on does not require Firefox to be restarted, that’s it: the add-on is activated as soon as the user clicks “Allow”. If it requires a restart, the user is notified that a restart is needed and the add-on is activated after the next restart.

If you’d like to try out the new add-ons manager, try running the latest Firefox nightlies.  Some of the smaller style changes have not yet landed, but the behavior described here is ready for testing (and bug reports where needed!)

Meta-bug for redesign: bug 550048, wikiQA
Meta-bug for look and feel: bug 586066, wiki

The basic redesigned add-ons manager functionality is running in Minefield nightly builds.  Many smaller parts of the functionality, and especially edge cases, have open bugs and are being actively designed and fixed.  API changes are being made majoritively by David Townsend, and final CSS visual polish is being done majoritively by Blair McBride.  Majoritively is actually not a word.  Individual bugs are not being filed for most of the small steps required to visually style the manager to match the current mockups.

The add-ons manager consists of a separate panel for each category of add-ons, called List View (☑ bug 585950). Individual add-ons’ details can be viewed in Detail View (☑ bug 562902).  The other main parts of the add-ons manager are search, a client-side “Get Add-ons” pane (bug 558158, spec), and the Update Pane (bug 598738).

Unfinished Functionality

  • Extension manager API rewrite (bug 461973, wiki, documentation). Dave Townsend is making API improvements clean up a number of issues, including to allow the main UI to operate without having to speak RDF.  This bug currently has 52 dependencies, including some user experience issues:
    • Having extension compatibility controlled on a per-addons basis (bug 527861)
    • Controlling order of add-ons in manager (bug 595847) and adding a search plugin provider (bug 552747)
    • Installing and upgrading add-ons in the add-ons manager:
      • Allowing the user to pause installations (bug 553024)
      • Using Firefox’s download manager to manage add-on downloads (bug 555753)
      • Handling failed installations to bad directories (bug 557897)
    • Viewing add-ons in the add-ons manager:
      • Allowing thumbnails and full-size screenshots to display in Detail View (bug 553563)
      • Assuring multiple copies of add-ons don’t appear in manager (bug 562922)
  • UX-centric functionality bugs for viewing add-on information:
    • Implement lightbox-style viewer for add-on screenshots (bug 553462)
    • Create numbered badges for active items on category titles (bug 553486)
    • Hovering over backgrounds should give a live preview (bug 562832)
  • UX-centric functionality bugs for installing and updating add-ons:
    • Allow user to undo a cancelled restart (bug 562300)
    • Checking for updates needs more visual feedback (bug 562925)
    • Showing newly installed add-ons prominently in the UI (bug 565522)
  • UX-centric functionality bugs for using add-ons:
  • In-content UI work needed
    • The add-ons manager currently does not visually  incorporate the navigation bar.  Incorporating the navigation and (if applicable) bookmarks bar, as in the mockups, distinguishes in-content pages as a part of the browser, not a part of the web.  It presents a steamlined, simple interface for dealing with what is essentially a panel of Firefox itself.  It also makes such pages distinct and unspoofable.  Bug 571970 is tracking progress on this change.  An added challenge of this change is making in-content UI work when the user has set tabs to display on bottom (see comment 23).  While a decent design solution could be found, this may not be worth the work and time before Firefox 4, and fixing the multiple back forward buttons present with tabs on bottom (bug 597178) is likely a better temporary solution
  • Unresolved issues
    • Giving a better experience for third-party installed extensions. Namely, to outright disable them on upgrade or not? (bug 596343)

Unfinished Graphics

  • Gradients and texture files needed for background of all in-content pages.  This could get slightly tricky with window resizing, anchored images
  • Concept and icon for what we’ve been calling the “gear” menu.  Gear works fine for OSX, not so much for Windows and Linux.  Even current placeholder gear is too close to native OSX window “tasks” menu
  • Final images and colors on sorter bar and search header
  • Final mockup for Update panel and in-line updates

In my last post, I described some of the ways that we’d like to improve the add-ons manager. First, we’d like to fix some of the add-ons manager’s usability problems, such as confusing installation processes and distracting notifications. There’s also some new functionality that the add-ons manager needs to provide, such as better information about add-ons and incorporation of newer projects such as personas. It was clear from the feedback that developers as well as users would like to see the maintenance and configuration of add-ons become easier.

The Add-ons Manager as a Tab

The current add-ons manager window sometimes gets in the way (with apologies to Gizmodo)

A few commenters on my last post highlighted problems caused by the add-ons manager being a separate window. It can get lost among other windows, be as distracting as a pop-up ad when giving a notification, and means part of the browser UI being modified is obscured. A potential solution that I think addresses these well is moving the add-ons manger into the content area of the Firefox, so that it runs in a tab. Here’s a few benefits this design provides:

  1. Gives more screen real estate to the add-ons manager. This would allow enough room for useful add-on information, scanning an entire add-ons inventory, and functionality like add-on preferences.
  2. Presents a less fragmented browser experience. Firefox’s chrome is basically a frame in which users go about their online life. But to modify that frame, users have to jump outside of it and onto a floating window. Modifying add-ons in the content space means the user never has to leave their tabbed browsing. Also, they can see all changes their add-ons make rather than having those changes obscured by a window.
  3. Allows for a similar add-ons experience across different devices. Running the add-ons manager in a tab means that an internet-capable device does not need a separate window or menu to modify add-ons – any device which can open a window can use add-ons in the same way as a desktop computer. Add-on management on mobile devices, tablet computers, and fullscreen mode would all provide the same experience. This is a huge win as the web becomes less about the device it runs on and more about the user, who may access the web on multiple devices.

Designing such an add-ons manager is a challenge we’re actively engaged in. The final design must feel like it’s a part of Firefox rather than a website, even if it’s displayed within a tab. It must also be unspoofable. Below is a rough wireframe of the design direction that we are considering.

When I ask Firefox users why they love Firefox, the answer often isn’t because of Firefox. Rather, it’s a particular Firefox add-on that provides functionality that has become invaluable to users. From developer add-ons like Firebug to social add-ons like StumbleUpon, a single add-on can fundamentally change how users interact with the web.

Firefox users get starry-eyed when describing their favorite add-ons

The reason add-ons are so important is because they are a fundamental way that users take control of their online life. Firefox touts its customizability as one of its main selling points, but users’ ability to customize their browsing experience is dependent on the talent and creativity of the add-on developer community. I’ve written in the past about the importance of Firefox providing a user experience ideal for as many people as possible right out of the box, without add-ons installed. But each user is truly unique and uses the web in increasingly different ways. That’s why it’s so important that add-ons be trivial to find, install, and begin using.

The Current Add-ons Manager

Add-ons are currently installed, maintained, and configured via the add-ons manager in Firefox. This window, found under the Tools menu, provides an inventory of installed add-ons and allows users to update, install, remove, enable, and disable them.

The current add-ons manager works, but could use some love

The add-ons manager has been largely unchanged since 2007, and it badly needs a redesign. One reason is that it has several usability problems that would provide significant benefit to users if fixed. For instance, the process of updating add-ons is currently characterized by interrupting important tasks such as startup. Locating a particular installed add-on currently involves navigating through categories such as extensions and plugins. Even experienced users I talked to find the distinction between these categories hazy. A redesign to address current issues should insure that installing and updating add-ons is trivial, notifications are non-disruptive, and the interface provides clear information about the state of a user’s add-ons.

However, a successful redesign of the add-ons manager must not only fix problems, but add functionality. This is because the scope and functionality of add-ons has increased dramatically and will continue to expand in future versions of Firefox. The current add-ons manager gives only the name of an add-on, an icon, a version number, and a one-sentence description. Users could benefit from more information, such as a description or a screenshot showing what UI the add-on will change. Added functionality is also needed because of new ways to modify Firefox, such as Jetpacks and Personas. These are similar to current add-ons in that users can choose items to download for added functionality, but they are installed, managed, and used differently. A redesigned add-ons manager must be able to incorporate emerging projects like these.

Redesign Priorities

From fixing current usability problems to adding needed functionality, there’s a lot that needs to be tackled in the add-ons manager redesign. To help focus the effort, the main areas to address can be described as five priorities:

1. Maintaining and Configuring

  • Allowing users to quickly locate a particular add-on by name or by type
  • Providing simple, usable controls for basic add-on operations
  • Allowing new forms of add-ons, such as Jetpacks and Personas, to be maintained and configured easily alongside traditional add-ons

2. Updating

  • Updating add-ons automatically by default. I’m increasingly convinced that most users, once they’ve decided an add-on is trusted, do not want to manually update it. They especially do not want to be reminded to update when they are starting the browser
  • Allowing users the option to update add-ons manually, update only a particular add-on manually, and possibly to undo an update

3. Installing

  • Streamlining the install process to as few steps as possible
  • Providing the user with clear indications of what action is needed, especially when some add-ons require a restart and some do not

4. Discovering

  • Providing a compelling first-run experience to new add-ons users, including clearly showing what functionality add-ons provide and what they will change
  • Providing a usable, findable way on the add-ons manager to search all existing add-ons, only requiring a visit to AMO when greater community involvement or information is sought

5. Troubleshooting

  • Providing ways to determine if a particular add-on may be causing performance problems, such as ranking by size, CPU, etc
  • Giving clear communication and instructions if there is a security problem with an add-on

This is still very much a working list open to feedback and changes (especially via comments here or on the wiki).  Basically, what I’d like to focus on is making add-on usage less disruptive and more accessible. Experienced and especially technical users tend to be very aware of add-ons and the functionality they provide. These users may see add-ons mentioned in the tech press, may talk to their friends about their favorite add-ons, and might even get involved in the add-on developer community. These are the users who say “I can’t imagine a world without add-on X.” But the benefit of add-ons is felt almost soley by this group. There are thousands of add-ons available that can improve the online experience of just about any user.  Both users and developers deserve an add-ons manager that helps make customizing the browsing experience simple.