Despite the fact that both web browser usage and the web itself have changed immensely since inception, there have been very few significant changes to the user interface of mainstream web browsers. A user familiar with the browsers of the mid-1990s would likely have no trouble using the latest versions of today's most popular browsers, one of them being Mozilla Firefox. The main navigation mechanisms—hyperlinks, the back and forward buttons, the URL bar, bookmarks, and the history—have remained almost unchanged for more than 14 years. One exception is the inclusion of tabbed browsing—which allows multiple web pages to be open concurrently under a single top-level browser window, each page in its own “tab”—as a standard part of the browser interface. According to estimates, 50% of people now use a browser that supports tabbed browsing. This figure is expected to continue to increase. During the same time period, there has been a rise in the usage of web-based applications. As a result, web browsing is ceasing to become the only task that people perform using a browser. Rather, the browser is becoming an alternative interface for many traditional computing tasks. The growing popularity of tabbed browsing may reflect the desire of browser users to have better ways of managing the increasing complexity of their activities on the web. Problems with Tabs While tabs are intended to make it easier for users to organize and manage web browsing sessions, they also introduce some potential problems. First, tabs are another organization and task management system that is completely separate from the mechanisms provided by the operating system. For example, in Microsoft Windows, one can use the taskbar to switch between open applications, but only the currently active tab in a browser window will show up in the taskbar. Similarly, on Mac OS X, the Exposé feature allows the user to quickly see a thumbnail image of all open windows, but this will not include any inactive tabs in Mozilla Firefox windows. Another potential problem with tabbed browsing is that it interferes with the use of the back button. Studies have consistently found that the back button is the second most commonly used navigation mechanism behind clicking on hyperlinks. The use of multiple tabs complicates the use of the back button, because each tab has its own history stack. Even if a tab was opened by clicking on a link, the back button will not take you back to the originating page, because it is in another tab. Finally, tabbed browsing adds another level of complexity to the Mozilla Firefox interface. Tabs add more visual clutter to the user interface, and like managing applications and windows, tab management becomes another necessary task that distracts from the ultimate goal at hand.
Despite these issues, tabs seem to be a very popular feature among Mozilla Firefox users. During preliminary investigations, we found that many people find tabs to be an indispensable feature. Perhaps the issues we described do not actually create significant problems for users, or maybe the advantages of using tabs simply outweigh the negatives. Given the increasing reliance on the Mozilla Firefox as the interface to more of our computing applications, it is important that we understand the usefulness of tabs, in order to guide the design of future Mozilla Firefox interfaces by appropriate usage data.
Student of Amity | Firefox Student Ambassador