June 05, 2009

A very good place to start

I've been thinking a lot about the idea of start pages recently, mostly in the context of what we should do in Fennec.

In Firefox, by default, we show a Google search field when you start the browser, but also give you the option to change it to whatever homepage you want. Occasionally, as on the very first time to run the browser, we show you a welcoming message instead. Recently, there's also been work to try to further refine what shows up when you open a new tab. All of these "start page" variants are attempts to speed you on your way to whatever it is you'd like to do with the web.

Let's break it down a bit. I'm thinking about three cases, the last two of which aren't addressed separately in Firefox today, but could be.

1. First run page – shown the very first time the app is launched
2. A start page that is shown each time the app is launched
3. A new tab page – shown every time the user opens a new tab

What should we do in Fennec? Where does the usage landscape differ from how Firefox works on the desktop?


1. First-run page

The first-run page is our big chance to get the user started with using the browser and the web quickly and pleasantly. It's a particular opportunity, in that we have some important things to communicate, and it's also when the user will forgive us the most for getting between them and whatever they were setting out to do. I think that users more or less expect, the very first time they open the browser, that we'll have something to say.

At the moment, Fennec uses this point of contact in a fairly limited way; we say hi and put up a little bit of pictorial instruction about how to use the browser:

There's more we can do here, and other ways to introduce the location of controls (zooming animation!). This is a separate topic from the one I'm thinking about right now, though.


Skipping to 3. Opening a new tab

A lot of thinking has been going on into what to show when you open a new tab in desktop Firefox. There's a good overview of the design issues and goals here, with a lot more detail here. In a nutshell, though, the ongoing work is trying to provide three things:

  1. Links to sites you probably want to go to, drawing that list from the browser's knowledge of where you go often and have been recently (also offering links to recent updates on those sites, drawn from RSS)
  2. If you opened the new tab immediately after closing another tab, the page offers a chance to reopen the tab (undo)
  3. If you copied something before opening the new tab, the page provides a means to do something contextually appropriate with whatever it is that you've copied — a dictionary lookup if it's a single word; web search if it's a phrase; map if it's an address

And all of this on a page that's as spare and clean as possible.

The key insight here is that everything offered is an attempt to speed the user towards whatever it was he or she was setting out to do. None of it is general, though possibly interesting, information like "the current weather." Instead, the browser makes its best guess about what you're doing, and tries to help. When a user opens a new tab manually it's almost certainly with some specific goal in mind, so this start page, more than the other varieties, must not derail that train of thought with a lot of non-targeted distractions.

What about Fennec? Of those three types of interventions, I actually have another idea for a way to undo an accidental tab-close that's more tightly tied to the closed tab (more on that in a future post). Easing the taskflow for something copied is something we should figure out how to incorporate, though, for the moment, the incidence of general purpose copying is fairly low on smartphones (another issue for another day).

What remains is the "let's let you just tap on the link you probably wanted" functionality. It turns out, though, that this is something that Fennec already does — the navigation screen (what comes up when you tab on the titlebar) contains a set of awesomebar-educated guesses as to where you're trying to go. Rather than duplicating this in a start page, it seems to me that we should, on a new tab opening, skip the user right to the navigation screen for those suggestions. You can also search from that screen, which covers a major mobile new-tab use case.

Still interested and following along? You win a free trip!*


Back now to 2. Start page

What about a start screen that comes up when you launch the browser?

Unlike the case of a new tab, it's more plausible that a person might open the browser without a specific destination or search in mind. The likeliest cases, I think, are (a) just wanting to be entertained and kill some time; and (b) wanting to check in on what's new on your sub-section of the web since the last time you looked (from news to the latest tweets). This got me thinking about having a really light-weight and zero-configuration page that just presents some recent things that, awseomebar-style, we know the user might be interested in. Here's a quick mockup of the kind of thing I've been thinking:

I'm borrowing some ideas from some interesting stuff that's been coming out of Mozilla Labs -- most notably Atul Varma's Ambient News experiment (a video here). You can read more about it on his blog post, but, essentially, it addresses my relevance and low-configuration criteria by assembling the list of news sources automatically awesomebar-style and draws in the latest articles via RSS transparently. The user never goes through the still overly-jargon-filled (eating? molecules?) process of subscribing to feeds -- from his or her perspective, the article titles are just there. Ideally, we could use the same method to generate the entries in the section above for number of new emails, unread tweets, and so on.

Anyway - lots of details to work out yet, so please get to it. :) Or, rather, please let me know how you think this could be made simpler and more useful. What would you want to have come up when you launch a browser on your phone or mobile device? Or would you just want the browser to launch with the tabs you had open last time? Under what circumstances would you launch the browser manually rather than following some other path to it (like a link in an email or a search initiated through a widget on your phone's desktop)?

Please discuss here!

* to another thousand words on the subject of start pages! Not redeemable for cash value. Which would be huge.

Posted by madhava at June 5, 2009 04:07 PM
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