User Study: Personalizing & Organizing New Tab

Content Services for Mozilla examines the delicate balance between power and efficiency.

Firefox users don’t necessarily want more features on New Tab. They want more value.

Although I had always suspected as much, this was our key finding in two back-to-back studies conducted with nearly 200 participants. The first study sought to determine the degree to which users wanted to personalize their overall New Tab experience. A second was then launched to investigate how much organization users wanted, and how much direct control they preferred.

The results are equally revealing and worth sharing.

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Methodology

Study #1 – New Tab Controls Menu

For this we study we tested the current New Tab Controls menu against two other variations which offered either limited or unlimited customization.

Current Version

“I like how clean it is, and how easy it is to choose between the two options.”

Today, the New Tab Controls menu offers users a strange choice: Everything or nothing. By default, New Tab displays a search bar, the user’s top sites on the Web, and sites suggested by Firefox. In this view, the only “control” the user has is to disable those suggestions. Choosing the other menu option removes absolutely everything but the cog icon.

“Well, that’s just kinda sad.”

Version A

The first variation of the New Tab Controls menu simplified the display to reflect one New Tab page with options to show or hide both a user’s top sites and content suggested by Firefox.

“This one just seems more polished, and more intuitive.”

Version B

A second version added to the new layout by including options that allowed a user to change the background color of New Tab, or upload a personal image.

“You can really make it your own. I definitely think this one’s more fun.”

Two groups of 48 were sourced from usertesting.com, totaling 96 participants. The first group was shown the current New Tab Controls menu against Version A; whereas the second group was shown Version B instead.

Initially, we ran a qualitative un-moderated usability study with 8 participants in the United States and United Kingdom to observe how they interacted with the new features available in the New Tab prototype. Testers were asked to think out loud as they explored the various menu options, while inputting answers to specific questions for measurable data points.

Afterwards, we ran the same study with 40 more participants (without video analysis) to supplement data gathered from the original 8. Combined, a total of 48 responses were collected.

Download the final report: UserStudy_NT_Page_Controls_V1 (782 KB)


 Study #2 – Filters vs. Groups

In this study, we showed testers two different ways to organize their sites on New Tab.

Version A

The first prototype offered a menu, labeled “Your Top Sites” by default. Clicking the text launched a drop-down that allowed testers to sort fictional browsing history by recent interest category.

“It’s the simplest thing I’ve seen in a long time, which is why I like it.”

Selecting any of the categories displayed just the sites in the user’s history related to that interest.

“It seems redundant and not super useful.”

The drop-down menu also provided the option to view all “top 100 recent sites”.

“I’d rather just use a history feed.”

Version B

A second prototype showed a group of logos titled “travel.” Testers could click any logo to view the destination page in another tab, expand the group to see larger logos and page thumbnails, or edit the group contents.

“This is a good way to consolidate.”

Group_Expanded

“The big circle… It’s kind weird.”

“It’s not very obvious how to get back to where I started.”

Once again, two groups of 48 were invited to participate in the study, for a total of 96. Group A were shown Filters on New Tab first for a usability study, and then then Groups for sentiment analysis and ultimate preference. Group B were show Groups on New Tab first, and then Filters.

8 individuals from the United States, United Kingdom and Canada were enlisted for an un-moderated usability study. As with the previous test, participants were asked to think out loud as they tried the various features available in each prototype, while answering specific questions for data inputs. 40 additional participants provided supplemental data, totaling 48 responses altogether.

Download the final report: UserStudy_NT_Filters_vs_Groups_V1 (1.5 MB)


 Lessons Learned

Study #1 – New Tab Controls Menu

Although few usability issues were observed, an interesting patter emerged almost immediately. Nearly all participants indicated that the current New Tab Controls menu was “sufficient”, and many had only a few quibbles with the functionality or presentation.

Then they were presented with either more simplified, “limited” controls, or additional controls that allow for “unlimited” customization of the New Tab background…

1. Users don’t always know what they want

Even though most testers thought the original controls were sufficient, three out of four preferred either one of the alternative versions. In other words, testers explicitly stated they wouldn’t change anything, until they saw something different-but-better, and then they wanted more… or less.

Lesson learned: People lie! They just don’t always know it. It’s our job as experience professionals to see through blanket declarations to uncover the true sentiment. (But sometimes people do tell the truth… Which is we we test things.)

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2. Rethink rethinking convention

Today, a blue check-mark indicates which view of New Tab a user has selected. But it isn’t a check-box. Several testers tried to click the blue arrow to deselect, instead of rolling over to click the other option. Of course, there is a check-box underneath “Show your top sites,” so this behavior is not without precedent.

Those who indicated that they preferred either of the alternative menus probably did so in response to the restyled controls that were actual check-boxes.

Lesson learned: As a designer, it is always tempting to challenge or replace old conventions with new variations. We must be especially careful, however, because what seems very clear to us may be vague to others. “bespoke controls” are better suited for primary navigation elements because they are often big enough to be understood as single-click destinations to something important. For menus, settings, and discrete functions, it’s often better to err on the side of convention.

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3. Nothing should ever be all-or-nothing

If there was one thing testers disliked the most, it was the “Show a blank page” menu option. Choosing that view removed every element from New Tab, save the New Tab Controls cog icon. In the words of one testers,

“Not sure why anyone would want that.”

Every single participant observed specifically asked for the search bar to be added to this otherwise empty page. This is maybe why so many participants loved the custom Background Image feature offered, because when they deselected “Show top sites” and “Allow suggested content,” they still saw a pretty picture.

“Background image – that’s more interesting to me.”

Lesson learned: Even taking away the custom Background Color options would afford any user literally infinite possibilities for customization. This example reinforces the sheer power one, well-conceived feature can allow limitless variety; additional controls are not always necessary to enable a satisfying experience.


Study #2 – Filters vs. Groups

This is where is gets really interesting.

Unlike other studies, participants were asked at first not to interact with anything, but to describe the first few things they noticed on or about New Tab. We simply wanted to know if testers would find the new features on their own. The responses elicited everything from the affordance of the search bar, styling of the “tiles”, suggested content options, and (sometimes) the features we hoped they would notice. In many instances, individuals described how they actually use Firefox to navigate the Web.

Then they interacted with one prototype, and then the other for comparison. Interpreting the final results was done so through the lens of the experiences mentioned above.

For me, the finding I found most profound was this:

1. A “winner” does not indicate “perfection”

As predicted, Groups was favored by testers – but not by a wide margin. In fact, a handful of participants actually liked both, equally. During video analysis, a few actually wanted to combine the two features in some way.

More importantly, the dominant reason Groups won over Filters always also shed light on the feature’s biggest flaw…

With Filters, a user must click once to launch the menu, click again to select a category, and then a third time after identifying the different, filtered sites shown. That’s terribly inefficient. With a group, a user has to click only once, but from among five additional destinations – all within the same basic tile shape. That is very definition of efficiency, and the reason stated by many as to why they preferred Groups over Filters.

The “expanded” Group view is another story. Even though most enjoyed playing around with the controls for customizing a site’s appearance on New Tab, testers otherwise felt like the expanded view was either redundant or confusing, and far less useful overall.

Understanding what a user values most is what provides the insight necessary to perfecting any feature. In this case, testers had stated that they use New Tab for one primary purpose: navigation. Whichever prototype facilitated navigation better for a particular tester was therefore almost always the version they preferred…

Lesson learned: So, don’t get in a user’s way by loading up New Tab with lots of fancy stuff. Keep it simple, light, and purposeful. Then let users decide if and how they use the features provided to make New Tab their own.


Conclusion

Naturally, all the features we tested were intended to invoke a noticeable reaction. I just didn’t expect the degree to which users actually enjoyed trying out the features (especially custom Background Images). At one point or another, nearly all participants made an unsolicited exclamation of joy or delightful surprise. Personally, this affirms that we’re experimenting in the right ways by exploring features that add user value above everything else.

Also, there is still much work to be done. We cannot, should not, overwhelm Firefox users with “enhancements.” Instead, we need to be purposeful and minimal.

Going forward, I believe that Content Services – and Mozilla at large – now have a clear mandate…

Wherever possible, reduce the number of steps a user has to make to make it personal.


CONTRIBUTORS:

Darren Herman, VP of Content Services
Kevin Ghim, Group Product Manager
Justin Terry, Product Manager

User Study: Enhanced Controls on Firefox New Tab

Content Services for Mozilla examines the fundamentals.

As New Tab for desktop users continues to evolve, those of us who create features for this core Firefox product must be forever mindful of user sovereignty. Although it is foremost a simple navigation tool, the current experience lacks any form of user customization for individual sites. To this end, the Content Services team recently conducted a study examining both the usability and user sentiment regarding more advanced controls over the sites shown on New Tab.

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Methodology

For this study, prototypes were created to depict new controls that would allow users to add, edit, or delete any site they see on New Tab. These were developed for two primary groups: 1.) current Firefox Desktop users and 2.) new users who have not tried Firefox within the last six months.

“Directory Sites” on New Tab for new Firefox users

In addition, new controls for Suggested Sites and related contextual labels were introduced for current Firefox users (24 of 48 testers). Discrete controls enabled these users to edit their individual category preferences for all related suggestions content on New Tab.

History - Default

“History Sites” on New Tab for current Firefox users

Initially, usertesting.com ran a qualitative un-moderated usability study with 8 participants (4 current Firefox users, 4 new) in the United States and United Kingdom to observe how they interacted with the new features available in the New Tab prototype. Testers were asked to think out loud as they explored enhanced controls for Top Sites and Suggested Sites, while inputting answers to specific questions for measurable data points.

For this first test, we wanted to know:

  • Would testers notice these features on New Tab?
  • How easy or difficult were they to use?
  • Were they at all interested in them as permanent features?
  • What roadblocks might users encounter when deleting, editing, and adding a tile, or updating their Suggested Site category preferences?

After completing round one, we ran a second study with 40 additional participants – this time without video analysis – to verify data gathered from the original 8.

Combined, a total of 48 responses were collected and analyzed to ensure that the results were 90% accurate or better.

Participants

Because hundreds of millions use Firefox every month, the “audience” for this study was intentionally general. The only requirements we gave usertesting.com participants were as follows:

Current users: People who use Firefox as their primary or secondary browser, at least a few times a week.
New users: People who have not used Firefox for at least 12 months
Locations: US & UK
Ages: Any
Genders: Any
Languages: English only
Mac users: Mac OS 10.6 or newer
PC users: Windows 6 or newer
Other requirements: Access to a reliable, high-speed internet connection

Findings

The original 8 testers provided a number of key insights that were then confirmed by the other 40 responses:

1.

Insight: While many testers rolled over sites shown in the prototype, most did not interact with any new controls on their own.

Static state (left), rollover state (middle), control menu active (right)

Analysis: In an effort to simplify the New Tab interface, site-specific controls were made available on rollover by clicking a cog icon. By doing so, however, users may not notice the icon, and will therefore fail to discover any additional controls available to them. Furthermore, when prompted to interact with the menu, several testers explicitly asked for the “X”/delete icon to display in the left corner when rolling over a site, which partially solves the problem. Discover-ability could be further addressed by increasing the contrast of the icons to attract more attention, or showing a tool-tip the first time a user interacts with a site.

2.

Insight: Nearly all testers found the new controls generally easy and intuitive to use.

A layover state with controls allows a user to choose a new site, and specify how it appears on New Tab.

Analysis: When prompted to do so in the study, nearly all testers were able to add, edit, or delete sites on New Tab on their first attempt, and without much difficulty. In usability terms, we could not have hoped for better results, as this affords us a high degree of confidence that these features would be intuitive for the vast majority of Firefox users if we deployed them today.

3.

Insight: Most testers were interested in seeing these features on Firefox New Tab.

Analysis: In fact, the majority of participants expressed appreciation for being able to choose how a top site or Suggest Site was displayed on New Tab – whether as a logo, the homepage, or destination page. When asked to rate their likelihood of using these controls on their actual New Tab page, 41 responded with “likely” (13) or “very likely” (28). These findings confirm our hypothesis (derived from previous research) that Firefox users want more direct control over their New Tab experience, including how their sites are presented. As such, future experiments should explore the degree of customization users actually want.

4.

Insight: Testers did not find the controls related to the interest category especially intuitive, but useful.

Clicking the related interest category below a Suggested Site reveals a fly-out menu. Selecting “View all categories” shows a layover.

A layover enables a user to turn individual Suggested Site categories on or off (check-boxes).

Analysis: Of the 4 initial participants who were shown the prototype for current users (which shows a Suggested Site), 2 of them did not expect the related interested category link to provide more control over their preferences. On the plus side, all testers found the controls to edit their interest categories for Suggested Sites easy to use. When combined with raw data from the second test, 20 of the 24 participants indicated that they were either “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to use these controls on Firefox. We interpret this to mean that users would appreciate more customization of Suggested Sites, even if the user value perceived will depend on the individual.

Conclusion

We already knew Firefox users wanted more control over their New Tab experience. Now we have a strong indication that further control over their top sites and Suggested Sites would be well-received. Together with findings from previous studies for New Tab and other Firefox products, the data shows that users are more receptive to suggested content than we initially thought. We now suspect that users may also want to organize New Tab according to their own preferences, instead of Firefox organizing New Tab on their behalf.

What we don’t know is how much of a connection users expect or want between their natural browsing behavior, and the content recommendations Firefox may show them based on inferred interests. Clearly, more research is required to determine how much New Tab should be a utility, verses a tool for discovery.


CONTRIBUTORS:

Darren Herman, VP of Content Services
Kevin Ghim, Group Product Manager
Patrick Finch, Marketing & Communications Director

Special thanks to Alexandra Michaelides, User Research Specialist at UserTesting.com who, after providing her with a draft test plan, ran the study on their platform and provided the detailed findings this post is based upon.

REFERENCES:

Test Plan for User Controls on Firefox New Tab Study

Detailed Findings – User Controls on Firefox New Tab

Follow-up Study with 40 additional respondents

Divining the Future of New Tab

What’s next on New Tab for Firefox Desktop users?

New Tab has come a long way since earlier last year.

It started with rounded corners and a few tweaked buttons. Then, Directory Sites landed for new users shortly thereafter, seeding their Firefox experience with content from Mozilla and a sponsored partner. Soon, Firefox 40 Beta users will begin noticing Suggested Sites related to their browsing history, along with a restyled interface and updated page controls.

But there’s so much more to the story.

The following are some of the experiments we’ve been thinking about for New Tab later this year. All of them are focused on user control, feedback, and discovery. We hope to land many of these features; others may get tossed entirely. Ultimately, aggressive user research will help us determine which ones are worth shipping.

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Experiment #1: More Control.

View the full presentation: Enhanced User Controls for New Tab on Firefox (PDF – 5.9 MB)

Deeper insights.

Transparency + control = trust. These days, everything I design is based on this formula. When it comes to Suggested Sites, users should understand why they’re seeing a particular suggestion, and have the ability to manipulate their preferences.

Interest category flyout menu

All suggestions include a corresponding interest category. Clicking the category (ex: “automotive”) reveals more controls.

Part of the solution is obvious: include appropriate labels, or explanation, where and when appropriate. Naturally, any Suggested Site will include a label. However, and more importantly, the interest category a suggestion relates to should allow for more control as well.

Interest category layover, with options

Clicking “View all categories” launches a control panel with any options available – including the option to turn off suggestions altogether.

Combined, these functions would provide users both the context and transparency we’ve been promising. (OK, it’s a start. We still have so much more to learn about this.)

Add a site of your own.

Users have been able to delete sites since New Tab’s introduction; but it was never evident how to add a site of their own. After deleting an unwanted site, it should instead be super-easy to choose a new one. Additionally, users should have the ability to see a logo, the homepage, or last page they visited.

Deleting a Suggested Site

Don’t like a suggestion? Select “Not interested” from the menu (available on rollover). Boom. Gone forever.

Add a site - default

After deleting a site, a user can add one of their own by clicking the giant “+” button. Doing so launches a new control panel.

Adding a site - defined

Once the user enters a URL in the Website field, they can then determine how the site should display on New Tab.

Top Sites get some love.

Logo or thumbnail images of destination pages may help users identify each Top Site, but what if they want to know more about their activity related to a particular site? The History feature on Firefox has always been difficult to navigate, and requires the user to engage with multiple functions of the browser.

See more information about any site on New Tab via the controls menu (available on rollover).

By selecting “About this site” from the tile control menu, a user could perhaps see information regarding the site’s purpose, the interest it relates to, and the user’s most recent browsing history – all in one view.

After clicking “About this site”, an overlay reveals the related interest category, a brief description, and all recent browsing history.

Which got me thinking: why not just put all of their history right on New Tab? Those looking for a certain, recently visited page could search via a simple dropdown, which would then list their most visited sites and corresponding browsing history.

By clicking on the clock icon, a user can view their recent browsing activity, sorted by their top destinations. Clicking on a site will reveal its full history.

Finally, no more digging! Just click and scroll.

Experiment #2: More Value.

View the full presentation: Feeds, Groups & User Feedback for New Tab on Firefox (PDF – 8.5 MB)

Feed that need.

When a new user downloads Firefox and tries New Tab, they see a bunch of Mozilla stuff. When current users view New Tab, they can see their recent sites… but not their “stuff” contained therein. If anything, they might see a single content page headline.

Not for long. One day soon, users may be able to add feeds from their favorite destinations on the Web.

Directory Sites - default view for new Firefox users

New Firefox users will see sites from Mozilla, a partner, and an empty tile. Rollover and click the “+” to “Add a site”…

The “Add a site” control panel displays. Once the user starts typing an address in the Website field, URLs are automatically suggested…

Selecting a URL populates the “tile” shown on the left. In this case, a content feed is available, and is selected by default.

Content feed added

Clicking “Save” adds the new content feed from the user’s preferred site on New Tab. Rollover the site to scroll through recent headlines.

People who want to keep a tidy New Tab, could do so. Those who prefer frequent updates from their favorite sites could find them all in one place. In this way, the user decides entirely how much – or how little – they want to see.

Interesting Groups.

If New Tab is all about getting user’s onto their next task online efficiently, then there is currently no way to organize New Tab around common tasks. Personally, I visit about 25+ different sites on any given day, but they’re all related to only a handful of core interests (car blogs, news sites, technology research, etc.).

To fix this, I imagine offering users the ability to create a “meta-group”, based on a core interest. Unlike “folders”, the group contents would become accessible “buttons” that link to their preferred sites in that category.

Click on hold a site to grab

Grouping made easy: Click and grab any tile…

Drag and drop one site onto another

Drag one site onto another to automatically create a new group.

Editing a group

After creating a new group, a control panel will display. Build the rest of the group in a single view…

Group added

Click “Save” to add the group New Tab. Done.

Essentially, this makes room for hundreds of possible destinations one could see on New Tab (not that anyone would want to). And if creating interest groups were easy, it could transform the way people use Firefox altogether.

“How did that content make you feel?”

Say a user sees a Suggested Site on New Tab. It looks interesting, so they click on it. They’re taken to a content page on a site they have never see before.

Click a suggested to see the destination page

A user sees a Suggested Site (lower left) that looks interesting. Clicking the site takes them to a destination page.

From the publisher’s perspective, the user clicked. Success!

From a user’s perspective, they’ve donated their time. Was there a payoff?

Now, after they’ve viewed that content – and after they’ve returned once again to New Tab – the user may be thinking one of two things: 1.) “Worth it!” or 2.) “Totally not worth it.”

Rating a Suggested Site

When the user opens a New Tab again, they will have the option to rate the Suggested Site they viewed.

Feedback received

If the rating is a positive, then the Suggested Site automatically becomes a History Site. In this case, a content feed is available.

Just by adding a bare-bones rating system for all Suggested Content, users would instantly have the ability to communicate something beyond their click: their actual reaction.

Creators of outstanding content experiences would be rewarded. Content which fails to meet the standards of everyday users would be flagged and purged. The ecosystem could have a real incentive to make content truly better – just by harnessing real user feedback (for FREE!).

Experiment #3: More Discovery.

View the full presentation: Combating Pervasive Boredom on Firefox New Tab (PDF – 2.1 MB)

Bursting bubbles. Finding new ones.

When you’re home, you’re comfortable. Everything is familiar. Everything is in it’s place.

That sounds terribly boring to me. I suspect others feel the same way.

The same could be said about New Tab.

New Tab - default view

Default view of New Tab. Boring.

What if New Tab could offer a break from the normal? What if it wasn’t so dang task-oriented?

What if a user wanted to experience entirely new things that were only about his or her top interests?

What if-

CATS!

New Tab - CATS!

New Tab Cat takeover. Not boring.


That’s all for now. As New Tab evolves, so will the creative thinking.

Why a Triceratops?

How to represent everyone without representing anyone.

Download the infographic: How user data is protected on Firefox New Tab (PDF – 633 kB)

Illustrating something highly-technical is more about storytelling than it is about design. My personal process often starts with a deluge of diagrams, wiki pages, stakeholder meetings, and follow-up discussions with engineers. Once I finally understand the details myself, it’s then my job to distill all that raw information into a single, coherent story.

That’s where the plot usually takes an interesting detour.

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The Content Services team recently asked me to develop an infographic depicting how Firefox determines which Suggested Site to show a user. The narrative itself was easy to illustrate because I had tremendous help from my teammates. But regardless of the refinements I continued making to the design, a crucial element always remained conspicuously absent:

The main character.

In this case, the main character was a Firefox User. My principle challenge, of course, was representing a person of any age, gender, ethnicity or language from around the globe. Secondarily, I wanted readers to feel something – maybe even smile. But most importantly, I wanted readers to clearly identify the User as the star of the infographic.

In other words, I needed a good mascot.

Folks don’t generally connect with the generic on an emotional level; so, I instinctively knew that flat, vaguely male or female silhouettes would be overly general for a global audience.

Maybe an animal? The Firefox mascot is a fox, after all, and small furry creatures are inherently disarming. I quickly discovered, though, that many animals could be interpreted as personalities types or even specific nations. Every option seemed close to the mark, but fell short upon further reflection.

Then the obvious roared in my face.

Historically, Mozilla has been represented by a dinosaur. And not the dead-fossil kind, either, but a living, breathing carnivore. I’ve always liked that image. The Mozilla T-rex, however, wasn’t the star of the story (and Mozillians aren’t all that carnivorous, anyway). Still, I could easily build upon this imagery without fear of alienating any particular person or group.

In the end, the species I chose to represent Users is one of the most recognizable. Besides being herbivores (which somehow seemed more appropriate), Triceratops command attention and demand respect. They’re creatures who appeal to our cooperative, yet intensely protective, instincts. They’re  important, impossible to ignore.

And when they’re smiling, it’s hard not to love them.

Done and done.

Mobile Minded

Imagining the future of New Tab for Firefox Android.

View full presentation: Updated New Tab Controls on Firefox for Android (PDF – 15.3 MB)

For over a year, the Content Services team has been busy evolving New Tab beyond a simple directory of recent, frequently visited sites. Once Firefox 39 lands on desktops later this summer, New Tab will include an updated interface, better page controls, and suggested content from our partners. With any luck, these and future products releases for the desktop browser will facilitate more direct, deeper relationships between brands and users. Most importantly (to me, anyway), richer controls on New Tab will also offer users more customization and better utility.

While this ongoing project work has certainly kept me busy, I can’t help but think about “the next big thing” whenever I have the chance. Lately, my mind has been preoccupied with a question that’s easy to ask, but much more difficult to answer:

How could Suggested Sites and more advanced controls work on mobile?

Providing Firefox Desktop users with more control over the sites they see on New Tab is relatively straightforward. The user is likely seated, focused entirely on the large screen in front of them, and is using a mouse pointer to activate hover states. These conditions are appropriate for linear, deliberate interactions. Therefore, New Tab on desktop can take advantage of the inherent screen real estate and mouse precision to support advanced actions like editing or adding sites. And since New Tab is literally one page, users can’t get really get “lost”.

Mobile is altogether different. The user may be standing, sitting, or on the move. Their attention is divided. Screens are physically smaller, yet still support resolutions comparable to larger desktop displays. More importantly, there aren’t any hover states, and mobile interactions are imprecise (which is maybe why we call them “gestures”). Because of this imprecision on handheld screens, a tap often launches another view or state that may the user to another destination – and after a few taps, the user may find themselves down a navigational rabbit hole that’s cumbersome to climb out of. Combined, these factors sometimes make it hard to perform complex actions on a mobile device. Likewise, any action made by the user should be minimal, simple to perform, and always contextual.

Taking all of the above into consideration, the following is an early peek at my vision for the New Tab experience on Firefox Android, with user control in mind.

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New layout

New Tab on Android: DefaultNew Tab on either desktop or mobile devices has always been about one thing: Helping users navigate the Web more efficiently.

Today, New Tab shows a two-column grid of rectangles depicting Websites they recently visited. While it may make the destination page easier to see, this is an inefficient use of space.

By shrinking the rectangles, more of them can fit onto the page; and by showing a logo instead of a Web page (when possible), identifying individual sites becomes easier too. These smaller “tiles” could even be grouped, just as the user would group apps on their device home screen.

Some folks may also be interested in discovering something entirely new on the Web. The future New Tab could serve suggested content for these users, based on their browsing history (and with permission, of course). But instead of commandeering a tile, suggestions could be delivered natively, and in line with the user’s history list.

Quick and painless suggestions

New Tab on Android: Suggested contentViewing suggested content in other applications typically launches a new app or another tab in the user’s browser. Yet it only takes a second or two for the user to decide if the content is actually interesting to them. Personally, I think it would be better to give users a preview of the content, and then give them the option of dismissing it or continuing on without leaving the page they’re on.

Shown above, I image that after tapping a suggested item, New Tab could slide away to the left, revealing a preview of the suggested content beneath. If the user scrolls to view more content, a button then slides into view at the bottom of the screen, taking them the destination page suggested on-tap. If they aren’t interested in reading further, they would simply tap the navigation bar (below the search bar) to return to New Tab. Meanwhile, they never actually “left” the original screen.

Drag-and-drop Web addresses

New Tab on Android: Drag a site onto pageHowever, if the user does find the suggested content interesting, then they should be able to add the destination site directly to New Tab. One solution may be allowing users to drag-and-drop a Web address from the search bar and into New Tab. Perhaps by dragging the address onto another tile, users could even create a new group of related sites.

New Tab on Android: Adding a group

If a user doesn’t care for a particular suggestion, however, then deleting it – or any item on New Tab, for that matter – should be as easy as dragging it off either edge of the screen. Borrowing from another popular email application, swiping an item would reveal the word “delete” beneath, further reinforcing the action being performed. Naturally, this may sometimes happen by accident. As such, a temporary button could appear that allows the user to retrieve the item previously listed, then disappear after a few seconds.

DIY tiles

New Tab for Android: Edit site appearanceAlternatively, a user could add a new site directly from New Tab. Tapping the “+” button would launch a native keyboard and other controls, allowing them to search for a URL, define the tile’s appearance, or opt-out of related content suggestions. For extra clarification – and a little fun – the user would literally “build” their tile in real-time. Selecting any URL from the search bar dropdown would update the example tile shown, displaying a logo by default. Or, the user may choose instead to show an image of the destination homepage, or the last page they visited.

Next steps?

What I’ve proposed should be taken with a few grains of salt. For one, I believe that limiting the need for new, fancy gestures encourages adoption and usage. Likewise, many of these interactions aren’t especially novel. In fact, most of them are intended to mimic native functions a user may find elsewhere on his or her Android device. My ultimate goal here was to introduce new features available on Firefox that won’t require a steep learning curve.

For another, the possibilities for New Tab on mobile devices are numerous, and exciting to think about – but any big changes are a long ways away. By the time a new big update for Firefox on Android lands, this post will probably to totally irrelevant. But in the meantime, I hope to plant a few seeds that will take root and develop further as my team, and many others at Mozilla, contemplate the future of Firefox for the mobile Web.

Control Issues

What does “user control” actually mean? This is my quest for a definition.

The Product Manager I work with on Content Services, Kevin Ghim, recently asked me to explore ways in which we could experiment on New Tab with “more user control in mind.” Kevin wasn’t asking me to design cool buttons or fancy interactions. He was asking me apply a broad idea to the overall experience.

Naturally, I couldn’t flesh out the finer details of a User Interface before understanding the larger story; and I couldn’t craft a credible story without a proper definition of the basic idea it was intended to support. And since no such common definition can be found (other than in the traditional sense of manipulable controls), I did what any reasonable designer with marketing experience would do. I made one up.

What sounded like a simple exercise has turned into a real mind-melter. This is the journey I took before arriving at my own conclusion.

1: Controls ≠ Control

We talk about control a great deal at Mozilla. In theory, any new feature or functionality we want to introduce on Firefox should allow for greater control, whether over the browser itself or the content within it. Sometimes this means more menus and buttons. Other times it means clearer choices over intended outcomes. It all depends on the task at hand, and a particular user in a particular scenario. But as a UX designer, I fully recognize that controls don’t necessarily add up to control. They are in fact, distinct things.

Broadly defined, “control” could be a synonym for “interaction.” This is to say that for as long as a user can manipulate (i.e. interact with) something, then they have control over it. While this may be technically true, taking this argument at face value fails to consider the larger experience. By this definition, a user would have “control” over how a service provider collects and shares their data with third-party advertisers by clicking an “I agree” button on the Terms of Agreement modal. Not only is this misleading, it completely devalues the role of a user while obscuring the role of the content or service provider.

Certainly, controls are integral to any successful experience. But it’s not enough that a user simply understands what each feature or interaction is supposed to do. Even the best designed, most well intentioned, and considerately placed controls will prove insufficient if they don’t allow for self determination. This is why I felt it necessary to go further, because I want the New Tab experience to anticipate a user’s wants – not to coerce them into supporting our own interests, or to choose a particular path on their behalf.

To explore the idea of control further, I had to look more critically at another idea…

2: Control is Contextual

Since control is meaningful only in context and in regards to a single individual, identifying a user’s wants or needs especially tricky.

For example, a new or novice user will often find a simple interface more approachable because they understand it more quickly. More specifically, they recognize their relationship to it. And a user who “gets it” will be more likely to use it. Their goals are more immediate and general. Likewise, limited interactions tend to help facilitate a basic sense of control over the experience by eliminating distractions.

At first, that is. Once the user wants to do more than the interface will allow, then simplicity and limitations soon become barriers. As to be expected, wherever there is a barrier, confidence diminishes, and, along with it, the user’s perceived level of personal control over their experience. Users who consistently want more control will leave, and those who feel overwhelmed by controls either quit outright, or move on to something “more intuitive.”

So, if user control is largely about supporting individual goals, then any interface or experience I create should anticipate the fact that different users will have different goals at different times. Finding the balance between control and ease-of-use can be an art in itself, requiring constant reevaluation.

While this may seem impossible at first, it helps me to consider another key point…

3: Control is Personal

Control may be relative, but it’s also very real in that it can be perceived and demonstrated in everyday life.

Users are people, not abstractions. While our roles as individual may be small on a cosmic scale, here on earth, at this very moment, we do understand and feel varying degrees of control in all aspects of our lives. Work, romance, friendships, and family are each stages where we exert real influence over the final production.

When it comes to relationships, in particular, many equate control with authority (the right to exert influence). While there will always be those who seek outright domination, folks mostly strive to maintain equanimity within their relationships by playing an active and substantive role in achieving a shared goal. As long as everyone is on the same page, so to speak, then there’s little need for one to dominate another. The same could be said about technology.

By default, a user may assume that technology – which is made by people, for people – is subservient to them. They are the ultimate authority figure. But after playing around with a few toggles and buttons, it becomes clear that any technology has its own prerogatives. A user can’t do any-or-everything they want, only certain things. Furthermore, human flaws in logic or production can render an otherwise powerful utility into something utterly useless; which, in turn, renders the operator impotent. In similar fashion, a user’s relationship to the technology depends largely on their ability to gain mastery over it. This is further exacerbated on the Web, where there are no physical machines to manipulate, and only pixels on a screen.

Accordingly, the best Web experiences respect the user’s authority, and allow them to define the value for themselves, as it applies to their individual circumstances (which may change over time.) Basically, the user should always feel that they have genuine control. It doesn’t get any more personal than that.

Beyond this, it’s crucial to remember that…

4: Control is Specific

Typically, something is personal because it’s specific. Like the ratty sweatshirt kept long after graduating college, or the picture taken while on an exotic journey. They are things we can touch and see that invoke a memory or represent a larger idea we deeply care about. Take away those connections, and those things become entirely ordinary.

People can think of Web products in the same way. It depends on how strong – and clear – the connections are between a product, a particular user, and the role it serves in their life.

As the designer for New Tab on Firefox, I try to connect those dots in a coherent, meaningful way. Giving a user total control over absolutely every feature and function would most likely confuse or frustrate them, not build confidence. Instead, I’d rather identify what they care about, personally, specifically, and design for that.

For instance, the majority of users fall into one of two camps: those who don’t mind advertising, and those who hate it. This involves very personal feelings about something very specific. Likewise, New Tab must allow users to exercise personal choice over these promotional experiences. Those whose aren’t bothered by ads should still have the ability to decide when or what kinds of ads they want to see so that they’re more relevant and timely. Those who want nothing to do with them should be allowed to opt out of any advertising altogether. These are simple things, but they would demonstrate true user control in action.

5: Conclusion

Having considered the ideas above for some time, I’ve finally come closer to understanding what user control really means – to me, at least. My definition is by no means perfect. If nothing else, the following is how I choose to approach this complex issue whenever designing for Content Services products on Firefox:

User Control is the measure by which an individual user may influence, direct, or master a digital interface, in a particular context, and in order to support a specific goal.

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Now, I genuinely want to know what you, dear reader, think user control means. Regardless of your role, either as a contributor to the Mozilla Project, or as a regular user of Firefox, I invite you to share your comments below.

I’m just one guy with an opinion. Maybe together we can spark some much-needed debate within the Mozilla community.