June 12, 2008

Tab-ula rasa

Boriss recently jump-started the discussion about tab management with her recent great post — if you're interested in how we deal with tabs, I encourage you to go read it and join the discussion. She deals with the issues of finding the tab you want in the sea of those you don't, as well as mechanisms for organizing tabs around real tasks.

I think it's worth coming at this problem from the other direction as well, crushing it, finally, in something we like to call the pincing crab-claw of good design. Implicit in the question of "how do we help people manage tabs?" is the assumption that people want to or should have to manage their tabs; this is definitely true for some tabs, but I think that fully half of the solution will come through helping people avoid a situation that requires capital-M Management in the first place.


Sometimes people have multiple tabs quite simply because they need to have multiple documents or applications open simultaneously. But sometimes tabs are stand-ins for activities that could be supported (better, even) in some other way.

  • Applications
    A number of my long-running tabs are applications I refer to over the course of a day: webmail, a calendar, an RSS aggregator, an IM client. And the list of web applications that people use, often in place of traditional "web 0.0" apps, is definitely not getting any shorter. This is bad news from a tab management perspective — it suggests that our lists of perma-tabs will only get longer.

    One way to deal with this this is by getting web apps out of the browser and into their own independent windows, as in Prism. By handing the window navigation task from the tab strip to the OS, we let users make use of the often richer and certainly more familiar set of window navigation tools available there (alt/cmd-tab, expose, taskbars/docks, and so on). Even working almost entirely within a browser as I do, I still find myself quite often hitting Cmd-tab (on the mac) to get back to my email, which is, of course, just in another tab rather than another application. This doesn't make as much sense for transient documents, but for something long running like an application, this can be very powerful.

  • An attention queue
    People often use tabs as a kind of to-do list — pages to read, forms to fill, reminders of tasks to carry out. Why as open tabs rather than bookmarks? In part, I think it's because an open tab is less permanent than a bookmark. Especially before Firefox 3, bookmarking a page felt like a commitment and required filing — not exactly right for something you just intend to deal with As Soon As Possible and may need no long-term connection to. It's also because a bookmarked page, while around for later, doesn't have the presence and judging stare of an open tab. An open tab can be an unbidden reminder in a way that a bookmark, hidden until called forth, cannot.

    What can we do to support the "deal with this later" use-case that doesn't contribute to tab-clutter? I've started tagging pages to come back to with the tag "queue" and then, periodically, looking at everything with that tag. It's not an ideal solution, though, because I still have to initiate the reminder process. It helps to remind of what I have to do, when I think to check, but not that I have to do something.


Quite often, when I try to sift through and clean up my tab pile, I find that I have the same document open in multiple tabs. In part, this is because it's getting easier to navigate to a page again than to find one that I know is already open (which better tab navigation will start to reverse). But in many cases, I'm sure I just didn't remember that I'd opened something previously. Making it easier for people to re-use an already open tab would certainly help prevent the tragedy of tab-inundation.

One early concept for this is an attempt to intercede when we see tab duplication beginning — as a user begins to tell the browser where to go. Some quick idea sketching led me to some variants on putting this information in the awesomebar - more discussion of these in a future post:



Lastly, some open tabs are documents that you're well and truly done with, but that you didn't close. Metaphorically speaking, you just left it on the floor and walked away, again. Would it kill you to tidy up after yourself?

Amidst the sea of open tabs, though, it takes effort to comb through your tab list for the flotsam and jetsam. To paraphrase something I read somewhere recently, there's immediate benefit to opening a tab but not for closing one. The benefit in the latter case is separated in time from the effort to get it — this is a contributing factor for all clutter, really.

What can we do to encourage or make it easier for people to close tabs that they're finished with? Some add-ons try to lower the effort bar on the triage, by providing an indication of tab age and disuse, for example. What else can we do here?

If you have thoughts or suggestions about these issues, please do get in touch! Other good sources for insightful thinking about the nature of tabs and their management are Aza and Bryan. Update: Andy Edmonds has also written on this topic.

Posted by madhava at June 12, 2008 01:44 PM | TrackBack

I really like the idea of matching to open tabs from the awesome bar. Cheap too.

Posted by: AndyEd at June 12, 2008 02:17 PM

Personally, I like version 4. I need a more obvious visual clue in the list to say, yes, I’m already here. Otherwise I was going to pick 2.

I guess my only suggestion would be to make a fifth option, which is identical to 4 but has each already-opened URL as separate entries.

Posted by: John Drinkwater at June 12, 2008 04:51 PM

A few months ago I wrote an add-on to close automatically tabs that I haven't used for some time.

Now I can barely use Firefox without this add-on.
Before I had almost always 100+ tabs, with this add-on enabled I tend to have between 20 and 30 opened tabs, which is much more usable.

I have just uploaded it to AMO (it's in the sandbox: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/7565) so that other people can try it.

Posted by: Florian Quèze at June 12, 2008 05:28 PM

How hard would it be to code all four of them, and then pick one as a preference, and have the other three either as extensions or as a preference.

As a fifth one, I want 'already open' line in the third one to be at the bottom of the other links.

That would easily double my use of the Awesomebar.

Also, while on the subject of tabs, I've one more suggestion. A non-default preference for showing the last date you viewed the website.


Posted by: Havvy at June 12, 2008 05:40 PM

Solution #4 all the way.

Posted by: bielawski at June 12, 2008 07:53 PM

Number 3 looks very nice. Having it tell you that you have tabs open already at the top I think makes it more noticeable to the user.

Posted by: Casey at June 13, 2008 08:52 AM

Thought-provoking post! In regards to the issue of why people don't use bookmarks, I think there's a bit more to the "requires filing" element: the bookmarks UI is a deceptively complex management interface that's constantly hiding information from the user behind folders that need to be interacted with.

Even more than that, though, the bookmarks UI is *yet another interface to have to learn*, and one that's completely separate and distinct from the action of browsing the web. So one of the nice things about using tabs as bookmarks, aside from the other reasons you mentioned, is that it simplifies the situation by conflating the concept of bookmarking with the action of browsing the web.

Posted by: Atul at June 13, 2008 03:05 PM

I think it is a must to get tabs, at the very least, into the awesome bar. It seems silly to have bookmarks and history (which are various views onto your browsing interests) without also including tabs (which is the best indicator of current browsing interests).

Posted by: Aza at June 13, 2008 03:13 PM

Yeah, did you file a bug on this yet? :)

Posted by: Ted Mielczarek at June 13, 2008 03:42 PM

First off, let me just say that I agree with "p111 white tramadol" about tigers, radiohead, and naprosyn. :)

Great post. I love the "re-use" ideas, esp. #3 and #4. I think it needs to jump out fairly prominently visually in order to work; #1/2 are too subtle in my view.

#4, while taking up some additional real estate, would probably allow you to make the best decisions.

Posted by: Anatole at June 24, 2008 05:13 PM