I'm Aza Raskin @aza. I make shiny things. I simplify.

I'm VP at Jawbone, focusing on health.

 

Letting Firefox Move Faster: Solving The Innovators Dilemma

With nearly 400 million users, the changes we make to Firefox must be made with care. The cost of change for fiddling with a commonly used feature can be high for any one person — and when that cost is multiplied by 400 million the cost-at-scale is oppressive; even causing 10 seconds of confusion can waste over a million collective man hours. Change comes at a cost and it must be outweighed by change’s benefits. Yet, we can’t be better without being different.

The nearly 400 million current Firefox users is a testament to our ability to make those tough calls and change towards the better. As our user base continues to grow, those calls will only get tougher. We need to find technical and cultural ways to overcome the innovators dilemma and lower the cost of experimentation.

Solving the innovators dilemma in the preferences pane. Click for bigger image.

Here’s the thought: add the ability to turn sparkly new features-sets on and off at will. These are features which feel like they are part of Firefox that just happen to be turned off by default. A quick trip to the preferences panel lets you try out the latest and greatestr: adding features which are important, but may not be large enough to be a stand-alone add-on that can get wide distribution. With the Jetpack SDK’s no-restart functionality, this becomes a one-click way of upgrading your browse.

In many ways, this is an extension of the Test Pilot project — letting us get feedback from a broad user base on potentially controversial or revolutionary ideas, and at the same time let every-day people get access to the cutting edge. The idea isn’t knew — Google provides a Labs section in most of their products that let you turn of new or wacky features post hoc; and Firefox lets the more hardcore open about:config to tweak and fiddle, even letting them turn on some truly rad features. It would let millions of people get the benefits of trying innovations like Weave, Ubiquity, and Contacts.

In the next versions of Firefox we’ll be looking at new ways of lowering the cost of experimentation and introducing change.

What other methods are there for solving the innovators dilemma for Firefox?

RT @aza Letting Firefox Move Faster: Solving The Innovators Dilemma | Follow @aza on Twitter | All blog posts

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This is a great implementation of the “lean startup” — letting users test features before they are implemented on a full scale. The question is, how do you promote the existence of that “xtra features control panel” without getting in the way? randomly displayed tips to a sample of users upon install?



    Aza Raskin

    Absolutely. I’m currently getting the numbers on how many users go to the preferences panel, but my guess is that in absolute numbers, tens of millions. There is also the option to prompt the user via a non-modal interaction to try a new feature out if certain behaviors are detected: “You just entered your 10th password, perhaps you should try Weave…”


      Giving tips based on actual user behavior is a better way to go IMO.

      But while it increases the accuracy of the user segments, it doesn’t solve the fact that there are users out there who ignore existing features altogether that don’t perform to their needs. If you prompt users based on their behavior, you may miss opportunities with the those users if new features supplement current features/behavior. I guess at that point it’s up to a non-obtrusive “catch-all” message. Perhaps on the installation landing page.


    i love it


I like the idea of turning features on and off. As I read it, it reminded me of GMail labs, of which I use 25-30 and adjust almost every month as new ones come out or I decide to try something my friends mention is useful.

I’m wondering — if Firefox is going to use tabs more with internal meaning (e.g. saw some mockups for Add-ons/Download Manager), if it would make sense for these kinds of features to be managed in a tab as well.



    Aza Raskin

    When we move to an in-page version of the Add-ons manager we will do the same with Preferences. It makes a lot of sense to put the ability to add new features there.


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Can’t wait to see some of these features get into Firefox.

PS. I wish Firefox had Chrome’s ‘Close tabs to the right’ feature. Such a simple feature — I use it constantly in Chrome, and I always miss it when using FF…



Maureen

I skimmed the chapter of the innovator’s dilemma you linked to but I don’t understand how allowing users to enable features in the preferences window solves the dilemma. To quote the book:

“Finding new applications and markets for these new products seems to be a capability that each of these firms exhibited once, upon entry, and then apparently lost. It was as if the leading firms were held captive by their customers, enabling attacking entrant firms to topple the incumbent industry leaders each time a disruptive technology emerged.”

Are features “or labs” that can be turned on/off really disruptive? The people who are turning on/off the features are already your customers, so how are you opening up a new market segment?

Or is this just about sustaining continuous innovation? If so, how do you expect to maintain sustained innovation against Google (now your competitor) who has already implemented this model?



Asa Dotzler

I think it’s important to remember that this isn’t something new to Mozilla.

Tabbed browsing in Mozilla apps started out as an extension called MultiZilla, implemented by a volunteer named HJ van Rantwijk. That extension inspired us to build tabbed browsing directly into Mozilla. (It’s worth noting that MultiZilla and Mozilla were not the first tabbed browser. Adam Stile’s Netcaptor browser had true tabs way back in 1997 – and that’s the implementation that Mozilla engineer Dave Hyatt most closely followed when adding tabbed browsing directly to Mozilla in 2001.)

Edward Lee’s Awesomebar also saw many iterations as an Extension before finding its way into Firefox. And more recently, Personas followed a similar path.

I realize that you’re fully aware of all of this, but some of your readers might not realize that this discussion isn’t launching from an empty page. We’ve had organic, volunteer driven add-ons features find there way into Firefox and we’ve had structured development of add-ons that were intended to (and in some cases did) end up in Firefox.

The idea of surfacing some of these good ideas, experiments, or not-yet-finished features to users from inside of Firefox itself is awesome.



    Mike Beltzner

    Quite right, Asa. The points that Aza (this will get confusing fast!) raises are definitely true, and as with all things a balance will need to be realized.

    I do like the idea of making it easier for our users to become early testers and adopters for some of our experiments. We must make sure to avoid confirmation bias, of course, but that’s where strong designers come in.

    At the end of the day, Firefox has succeeded because we’ve leveraged the community to help us understand things, but we’ve made decisions based not only on data, but on our intuition and sense of product design.



Nate

That’s an awesome idea. What about a “Try a New Feature” toolbar that provides an interface to the newest options? When a user selects a new feature to try, he gets shown how the feature works now and how it will work during the trial period. If he uses it and likes it, he can mark it as accepted and it’s no longer on his list. A user can download the new version of firefox and not worry about anything changing, then acclimate himself to the new features at his own pace.

Also, in that way the feature set of Firefox could become a set of chains of individual feature versions. The “Try a New Feature” toolbar is an interface between the user’s current version and the newest version, but another interface could let adventurous users mix and match from any version of any feature (assuming compatibility).


I like the idea of being able to toggle features. I try out most new ones anyway so it would save me the hassle of installing add-ons and creating new profiles to check out the new stuff.
It should be offered for old and/or current ones too like Personas. I like and use Personas, but some want the feature fully disabled. There’s even an add-on to do just that. Many, many, people would have liked a quick opt out/disable function for the Awesome bar when it came out.

I imagine though that people will be screaming about bloat if the features are included in Firefox by default even if they can be disabled and they are features that aren’t necessarily planned default Firefox features for future releases.



Simon

I think this is a really great idea, especially since I myself am extra excited when it comes to test out any new feature.
I’m just thinking about the problems with how to promote these Labs features – for instance, how will they be differanciated from the regular add-ons? As it looks right now, the Labs features are extensions that sometimes makes it to the add-on site and sometimes just lives on some server somewhere. I think there’s a risk of confusions – even though these features are seen as more of “Core features”, that could be a difference that’s quite hard to grasp – especially since there really is no limit to what an extension can do in comparison to what FF itself can do.
Also, there’s the question of cluttering the very limited space in the Settings window with a feature that most people won’t ever use.
I don’t really know if there are any statistics on the usage of e.g the different Google products Labs features, but it feels like that is a comparison you can do to be able to explain better what the Labs features are all about.

Also, this will get really meta-filosophical and nice if you make the “enabling experimental Labs features” an experimental Labs feature!


How would this be different to the discovery pane in the addons manager rewrite?

Playing devil’s advocate, as I never do, this could just be another piece of UI to work around labs extensions not making it into the recommended addons list?


From a development perspective this makes me think of Flickr’s model: http://code.flickr.com/blog/2009/12/02/flipping-out/


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