Firefox has a lot of preferences. For illustration, here's a map of all of them that are accessible from the Preferences (Mac) or Options (Windows) windows:
That's seven tabs, one of which contains four sub-tabs (Advanced), over the course of which the user can click on buttons to bring up a further 23 windows or panels, one of which has a further five tabs. That's leaving out the Add-ons Manager, host to preferences for add-ons, and the monster-filled fathoms-deep sea that is about:config.
It's hard to get rid of preferences. Typically, there aren't any that are entirely without worth, and, on an individual pref-by-pref basis, it's hard to argue that removing functionality is worth the small ease-of-use gain of one less item. Over time, though, you're left with a situation that is the opposite of simple.
This is a problem to chip away at in Firefox; for Fennec, it demands immediate attention. The smaller screen on a mobile device and a button-density dictated by the size of a fingertip make it impractical to show a huge number of preferences — assuming that you'd even want to inherit that problem! Another defining characteristic of mobile is that the ratio of power-users to non- is skewed even further to non-power-users than on the desktop. Mobile users are just less likely to want to "configure" their mobile browsers.
For comparison, here's the full set of "Settings" in mobile Safari:
What preferences do you think are absolutely necessary in a mobile browser?
There's a really interesting article over here — China and the next billion mobile customers (via Semiconducted) — on the topic of the mobile phones in Chinese society. I was surprised to learn, when speaking to some Mozilla contributors from China at the summit, about the near-complete lack of voice mail usage there, something mentioned in this article. There's lots to learn about this space.
A couple of things that fit into place in my head:
1. Prying yourself away from the network
In China, not answering your mobile telephone is considered rude, no matter where you are, whom you are with, the time of day or what activities you are engaged in. And voice mail does not exist. Despite this cultural imperative to be available anytime and anywhere, there is a simple work-around practiced by hundreds of millions of Chinese. Manually removing the telephone battery creates a message to in-coming callers that the telephone's owner is out of range and thus unable to answer the phone. This regular subversion of the cultural imperative functions as an open secret, even playing a prominent role in a popular 2003 Chinese film called Shouji ("mobile telephone").
One of the defining characteristics of mobile users that they are always accessible/available, because their devices, and therefore the network, are always present. This can be great — it's a huge part of the value of mobile, because of the changes in behaviour that it allows (e.g. Shirky's transition from planning to coordination). As always, there are downsides as well. When the option to ignore your device, already rarely-chosen in North America, is actually ruled out as actively rude, the issues with constant availabilty are really thrown into relief.
There are cues and norms associated with being interrupted in "real" non-computer-mediated life, and, to some degree, these have grown up around fixed-place (desktop) computer use. At very least, we have basic tools (setting availability in your IM client) and some circumstantial divisions (if I stick to gmail and stay out of IRC when I'm not working, I won't get work-related messages). This all becomes more complicated when the same devices bridge all parts of our lives, and when the situations that can be interrupted are more varied and sensitive than sitting at a desk.
The ability to be appropriately available is going to be one of those issues around which there's going to be a lot of tweaking and perfecting over the next couple of years, I think. One early simple implication for the design of Fennec, though, is the possibility of a mechanism for setting your availability centrally in the browser, so that that websites and apps can pick it up rather than forcing the user to tell each site that he or she would rather not be bothered. Eventually, we could even start making this smarter, by basing some of it on the users location (taking advantage of GPS), schedule (I'm in a meeting), or even movement.
2. The potential of rich devices
Looking to the future, it is easy to imagine that in the next years China's mobile telephones will become the literal meaning of the Chinese word for mobile phones, shouji, "hand machines." Once rich data transmission becomes massively affordable, the mobile telephone will combine the pervasive, persistent and intimate qualities of existing phones with the internet's near limitless entertainment and communication options.
Literal translations are usually played more for laughs than for insight, but I really like this bit about hand machines. When people are dubious about the value of mobile access to the web and rich devices, it often gets phrased in the form of "Why would I want [a camera/TV/the web/other ability] on my phone?" The Chinese word captures it much better; what you've got isn't a phone – it's a hand machine. Making calls was just the great capability that got you carrying it first (no surprise that it was something to do with being social).
I'm working on the design of a lot of the "extra" UI in Fennec right now — non-primary UI like preferences, add-ons management, records of downloads, and so on. Aza was in town this week, so we spent some time thinkin' in front of a whiteboard. In an experiment in (virtually) inviting others into the room, we recorded our brainstorming.
I was a bit skeptical about how many people would watch, but Aza blogged about it and numbers don't lie (I'm looking at you, numbers) — quite a few people managed to sit through the first one. Resulting comments led to interesting discussions, so it was well worth it.
After the jump, you can find the recordings of our thinking through "find in page" and how to deal with bookmarks.
Find in Page
Whiteboard screens: Fennec Find Design Boards.pdf
Whiteboard screens: Fennec Bookmarks.pdf
I held a session at the Firefox+ summit the other week about how user-experience design for mobile is different than for the desktop, and the ways in which some of that thinking is making it's way into Fennec. The slides from the presentation portion are finally up and available for your consumption:
The really productive part of the session, for me, was the time we spent hearing about mobile browsing use-cases from the people gathered for the session. The proof of our mobile web browser is going to be in how well it supports people as they try to live online while untethered, so really understanding these is critical. I've added my notes from that session to our page of usage scenarios; if you have ideas to add — a mobile itch that Fennec can scratch (metaphor only!) — we want to hear them.
With your indulgence (assumed!), I'm going to spend a couple of blog posts on the ideas in that presentation and about the design direction for Fennec. For starters, though, I thought I'd push further out into plain view the mockups of the Fennec UI we're building. The working designs are, and have been, on the wiki, but they can be a bit hard to find. This is where they're updated and extended as we figure things out, so have a look and let me know what you think about where we're heading.
You can leave comments here or post to the thread.
We're also trying out some experiments in opening up the Fennec design discussions, so stay tuned, and let us know whether you find this kind of thing useful.