Firefox Proposal: A Better New Tab Screen
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it means to design interfaces at scale. The amount of time saved when the tasks we do often are streamlined is staggering when multiplied by a quarter of a billion users. At the moment, I’m interested in what we can streamline in the new-tab workflow.
Right now, when you open a new tab, you get a blank screen. While clean, it has a 100% probability of not getting you where what you want to be. While it’s good to not intimidate with an explosion of information, we can get a much more streamlined workflow—thereby saving huge amounts of aggregate time—by showing something. The question is, “What?”.
Let’s look at using the power of context and contextual actions to enhance the browsing experience through a smarter new tab. The main goals are to:
(1) Simplify common actions. Right now to use some text you’ve selected on a page, you have to copy the text, open a new tab, go to a new web service, paste it in, execute, wait for the page load, and the go back to the other tab. If the browser knows you’ve just selected an address and then opened a tab, it knows you’ll probably want to map it. Let’s give the user one-click access to map it.
(2) Streamline your habits. If you always visit TechCrunch after reading Slashdot, the browser can offer you one-click navigation from the new tab.
(3) Super-charge search. You often go to a new tab to start a search action: Make that front and center. Additionally, we can save the user’s time by integrate all of the services I care about (like my mail, delicious, and the web) into one search box.
Here’s a video explaining the concept:
Thoughts: How I Arrived Here
90% of the time, when I hope a new tab it’s do do a search. Why not put a search box there? The search could be Google or Yahoo or whatever your favorite provider is. As the browser, we can automatically detect this by just watching where you do your searches&mash;as the browser we can be smart. Let’s mix the results of the search engine with the results of the Awesome Bar. There are lots of ways of doing this: an easy way is to have the suggestions be from the awesome bar, and if you don’t select something from the awesome bar, you just get a search from the search provider.
Now we are starting to get a compelling use story. You pop-open a new tab, start typing, and you’ll either pull something up from your own browsing history, or get dropped to a search of exactly what you need. We can extend this further by integrating the suggestions with third-party data, like your Del.icio.us bookmarks, your email, and your Flickr stream. (This is one direction that Weave can help us move).
One of the cool things that only the browser can do is have zero-configuration 3rd-party value-adds. Because the browser knows which sites you use, and whether you are logged into them, it can seamlessly upgrade your experience by providing services from those sites (like the ability to search your mail). No configuration required, yet no privacy violated. This ability is used in both Ubiquity and Ambient News.
A critique I’m expecting is, “Most of what’s being proposed here can largely be accomplished by using the Awesome Bar”. While that’s partially true, putting search in the new tab space has two main benefits: (1) It makes sense to help a wider audience be more efficient by putting time-saving features in the path of their current work flow; (2) because we are in full HTML-space, there is a greater degree of flexibility in what can be displayed and interacted with.
That takes care of the generic search case.
Most of the rest of the time, I’m opening up a new tab to take some text I’ve just copied to do something to it. Like opening a map.
If we detect that some text has just been copied in one tab, we can suggest some actions based on it in the new tab: mapping, adding it to the calendar, etc. We can autodetect what type of text is selected. If the user is going to do something all the time, might as well make no or low cost. (We can also just display the map instead of suggesting the action &mash; but that raises privacy concerns of sharing your selection when you don’t mean to.)
Mockup by Aza Raskin
The last thing I often do is to open a tab as I go through a sequence of browsing. For instance, I generally open Google Calendar after opening Gmail; or go to TechCrunch and Reddit after reading Slashot. As the browser, we can detect these high-probability events and suggest the action in the new tab to streamline your work-flow. Similarly, we can also suggest pages based on the time of day. For example, before I go home in the evening, I always check the bus schedule; in the morning, I always check the comments on my blog. My browser knows that, and can help me out.
Another example of a contextual sequence is that whenever I select and copy a single word, I always open up Dictionary.com to look it up. We learn from that pattern and make it a one-click action. Alternatively, we can show the most oft visited sites as a sort of zero-configuration version of Opera’s speed dial.
Mockup by Alex Faaborg
Mozilla Labs’ Atul Varma has recently released an Ambient News extension, that applies much of this ambient-information thinking to the new-tab workflow. It’s a compelling zero-configuration zero-cost look at rethinking RSS.
What I like about all of these is that they are zero-cost benefits. We, as the browser, can make wrong guesses and the worst offense we’re committing is adding visual clutter. There is never a real penalty to the user, yet the benefits when right are substantial.
My hunch is that some of the concepts here go overboard and would end up being more hindrance than help. Nothing here needs to be taken wholesale. Feel free to mix-and-match. This post is meant as a way to start discussion.
This video and post were made as part of the Mozilla Labs Concept Series (which means everything here is released as share-alike attribution CC). The post presents just a few things you can do to improve the new-tab experience. They are by no means the only direction we should think about for Firefox, and we won’t necessarily do any of them. What other ideas do people have? The over-arching concept here is zero-cost interfaces. Interfaces that work at scale.
Participate by leaving a comment and making your own artifacts. I’m especially interested in videos, although anything that continues the discussion is great. They don’t have to be high-tech, fancy, or polished. You don’t have to be a “computer” person. No code is required. You can just stand in front of a camera, hold up bits of paper with sketches, and talk. The goal is to convince a wider community that your idea is awesome. Just post your videos on Vimeo, tag them “mozconcept”, and put them as a comment on this post.
If you are a code person and want to help turn these concepts into an extension, give me an email at aza [at] mozilla [dot] com.