When the Machine Rages Against Itself

This week at TechCrunch Disrupt, Randall Rothenberg, CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), argued that

Ad blocking is an extortion-based business and it hurts publishers.

Rothenberg’s statement was a bald accusation intended to vilify the ad blocking industry generally, and Adblock Plus in particular. As someone who helps make Adblock Plus, I feel compelled to respond.

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From his perspective, ad blocking software companies are extracting revenue from publishers by forcing them to pay for whitelisting advertising content they’re being paid to show. In a quest of supreme greed and malicious intent, ad blockers are basically attempting to suck publishers dry until the entire free Web crumbles into a smoldering ash heap – all for the personal gain of a few masterminds.

It’s definitely a novel conspiracy theory. It’s also a convenient story.

What I find most ironic is that this accusation comes from Rothenberg, who oversees an organization who helped build the very adverting ecosystem users are clearly fed up with.

Average human beings using the Web didn’t ask for exposure to advertising in exchange for content on the Web. That’s something publishers and advertisers decided. There was nothing inherently wrong with that. After all, advertising pervades nearly every aspect of modern, Western life.

But instead of focusing on good advertising, the IAB sold publishers and advertisers on the idea that all advertising on the Web should be standardized. If all advertising could be reduced into “ad units” that populated pre-determined formats on every major website, then ads could be easier to produce and display at scale.

Ad Tech companies soon emerged to build the infrastructure we now call programmatic advertising. By creating an entire system that could deliver ads, anywhere, in real time, and without human assistance, they made it possible to scale advertising so that it was highly profitable.

By standardizing advertising, and then taking human decision making out of the process, publishers and advertisers are inextricably connected to the one and only system for generating revenue – a system even the IAB admits is broken.

Meanwhile, Adblock Plus and others have given users the one thing they never had in the beginning: a choice. Ad blockers themselves often began as a frustrated developer’s response to the terrible ads that blink, flash, animate, follow them around wherever they go online, and infect their computers with virus. After many years of minimal adoption from those outside the hardcore tech communities, ad blockers suddenly become a popular new tool for everyone else who was fed up with advertising on the Web.

Only in the past couple of years, now that hundreds of millions of users have ad blockers installed on their devices, have publishers and advertisers become acutely aware of what this phenomena could mean for their business.

Rothenburg is essentially claiming that ad blocking companies are to blame for the problems publishers and advertisers are facing with the loss of ad revenue. This is ironic, considering that companies like Eyeo (who makes Adblock Plus), are actively trying to find other ways to monetize content on the Web. For example, we recently announced Flattr Plus, an extension which will allow users to pay for good content directly. Before that, we launched the Acceptable Ads program, which allows publishers to show nonintrusive ads to Adblock Plus users (with permission, of course). From the very beginning, in fact, we’ve been trying to work alongside publishers, advertisers, and ad tech companies in an attempt to broker some compromise.

And why won’t some stakeholders consider alternative solutions to this mess we’re in? Why do they claim we must be evil and / or corrupt?

Mostly because publishers or advertisers literally can’t try another solution (yet).

They can’t because they’re all hooked up to the same intricate system that is the ONLY system in place. Even worse, publishers and advertisers have lost all control of the very content they produce, on the grounds that third-party experts and algorithms can do a far better job at produce big results through an elaborate system of tracking, targeting, and automated delivery. As a results, publishers never really know what any given user is seeing on their own damn website, and advertisers are forced to focus on automation and volume instead quality and brand loyalty.

Changing the current system would be monumentally difficult, and it would be too costly for most publishers take back control of the adverting on their websites. But if things don’t change for the better in the end, then everyone will lose – including average users, professional content creators, and maybe even entire industries.

So now I must ask you, Mr. Rothenburg:

Who is extorting whom?

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.

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.