Usability of tabbed browsing in Firefox

In the post Improving Tabbed Browsing, Ben Goodger reports some interesting findings from usability testing of the Firefox implementation of tabbed browsing.

The usability studies were done at Google, using a special build of Firefox 1.5b1 that was configured to open targeted links in new tabs instead of in new Windows.

The testing revealed some things that caused problems for many users:

  • Back button: When a new tab is created, it gets a blank session history, so you can’t use the back button to get back to the page that launched the tab.
  • Closing tabs: Many did not see the close button, and instead used the contextual menu to close tabs. Some tried closing the entire browser window instead of just the tab.
  • Stacking order of tabs: When closing a tab that was opened by a targeted link from another tab, the adjacent tab is made active instead of the tab containing the opening link.

The team experimented with some adjustments to the tabbed browsing in Firefox to find out if they would improve usability:

  • Put close buttons on the tabs
  • Change the closing order of tabs
  • Implement an “Open links that would open new windows in tabs” preference

The discussion in the comments is interesting and brings up different views on what makes tabbed browsing more usable. Obviously the ideal behaviour is different for different people.

Safari, my main browser, has a close button on each tab. Most of the time I use a keyboard shortcut (Cmd+W) to close tabs instead of that button. I have accidentally clicked the close button a couple of times, closing a tab instead of activating it. Annoying, yes, but to me that’s a price I’m willing to pay for the convenience of being able to close tabs without first activating them.

Posted on November 9, 2005 in Browsers, Usability


  1. Very interesting to hear about the thinking that may lead to important decisions.

  2. I’d rephrase that as “very interesting to hear about the thinking that may lead to copying even more of Opera’s features” ;)

  3. Why are Google testing the usability of Firefox? I don’t fully comprehend that.

    Anyway, Firefox’s tab ordering has always got to me, as well as the lack of a close button on individual tabs. Here’s hoping we see some changes.

  4. Rich, this is maybe why: Google Firefox.

  5. I use my middle mouse button to open/close tabs. I can’t really describe how incredibly useful I find it. But I guess that doesn’t work for Mac users unless you have a Mighty Mouse.

  6. Putting the close button on the tabs is a nice thing to have as a preference. Mind you, in KDE, with the context menu opening on mousedown, I can context-menu-close tabs in nearly the same time it would take me to hit a small button.

    “Open links that would open in new windows in tabs instead” already exists, and has for some time, in the tabbrowser extension. It’s a wonderful feature. But I think it would be improved if the new tab opened directly to the right of the current one.

    Closing order? No, that, I think, would be a bad idea. If my above suggestion is implemented, the opening tab automatically becomes the next to get active with the current method. If, however, the order of tabs isn’t changed, but the closing order is, there’s a huge problem in a very common use case (for me): I open lots of links (say, Google results), then go through them. I find three or four that are actually interesting and leave them open for further perusal. I close the others. An hour later, I’m done with all the pages I have open and want to close them all, leaving the Google results open to get some more results. Now, I could do that using “Close Other Tabs”, but as my hands are usually not on the mouse, I’m more likely to use keyboard navigation. In such cases, I go to the right-most tab and repeatedly hit Ctrl+W. If the thing jumped to the opener instead of the next tab, I would accidently close the Google tab, which I wanted to keep open. Having the tabs switch the the physically closest just makes more sense to me.

  7. Turnip: or any 3-button USB mouse. They all work fine with OSX.

  8. “Closing tabs: Many did not see the close button, and instead used the contextual menu to close tabs. Some tried closing the entire browser window instead of just the tab.”

    These people should be banned from using computers…forever!

    Anyway I usually use the middle mouse button but I also have an extension which puts a close button on the tab. I also use another extension to open target links in a new tab instead of window and its by far the better option.

  9. Use Tab Mix Plus.

    It is a very powerful extension that, apart from a number of other things, has the following capabilities:

    [1] Adds a close button to each tab. This button can be configured to be either always visible or visibile on hover.

    [2] Changes the closing order of the tabs. You can configure the extension so that the recentmost active tab gets the focus after a tab is closed.

    [3] Can cause links that would normally open in new windows to be opened in new tabs instead. You can fine tune this in a number of ways.

  10. A close button on tabs is horrible. Opera added it in version 8, but luckily it can easily be disabled. However, both Opera and Firefox already support middle clicking to close a tab. Perhaps it should be made more clear that the option is available rather than adding annoying close buttons?

    Also, using the right mouse button to close a tab is only annoying the way Windows uses right click menus, in the average Linux distro you could keep your mouse button pressed while moving towards close which is just as convenient as middle mouse button. If OS X doesn’t have that the same way I consider the stuff about better usability nonsense from now on.

    Anyway, as long as all of these things can be disabled it’s not really a problem. And last but not least I think it’s simply admitting defeat in the original stance of “we need to be bare-boned, other browsers are too feature-loaded” and such. Or is that just my non-Firefox-using brain…

  11. The Tabbrowser Extension can move the Close button to within a tab, and change order of closing, opening, et cetera.

  12. Google is doing browser usability research… this can only mean one thing (as mentioned by Mr. Nyman).

  13. November 9, 2005 by theUg

    It never cease to amaze me, how “barebone” Firefox has bigger footprint than Opera. The idea my not be bad, as you download only what you need, but how is that Opera offers full-featured browser complemented with e-mail client, IRC, and feed-reader in a smaller download? Plus, there’s serious usability issue — when you switch machines or OS you have to download all those extensions again and again. While to configure Opera takes me about a minute after installation.

    Now about tabs. One serious advantage Opera has over any “tabber”, is that it has true MDI, so that you can restore and resize each document to your liking. And in general, working with Opera’s tabs is pretty intuitive (as opposed to FF which is the pain in the arse to get used to tab in it, cause it is done by someone with bent arms), including the fact that after closing a tab you get to the last active window. And I think it might be possible to reconfigure this behaviour if someone likes otherwise.

    Another handy feature — drag and drop rearrangement of the tab order.

    As for the close button, I find it quite handy and it looks pretty in the default skin. :) Only inconvenience, is that I have to go to context menu now to restore windows, so I can play with resizing.

    And if you accidentally close the tab, now Opera has trash can on the tabbar, where you can restore this tab with all associated history. By the way, it restores it in the same location in tabbar it was before (say, you have ten tabs and accidentally deleted fifth from the left — when you restore it it goes right where it was).

    A “back” button on a new window — it is questionable. I configure Google to open links in the same window, and if I need to open results in a new window, I do proverbial Shift+click. Quite usable if you ask me.

    By the way, last thing I need after close a tab with results, is go back to tab with search page. I usually want my last opened page back.

  14. As an Opera user I found Firefox’s tab implementation to be very odd. I really don’t understand the hybrid new window/new tab model. If you’re going to use tabs, why not just use tabs? I had to download an extension to get it to work the way I wanted it to and even then there were problems with the aforementioned restore issue, especially with pop-ups.

    Unfortunately, for the next version Opera is reverting to this model in their keyboard shortcuts where CTRL-N will get a whole new window and CTRL-T gets a new tab. Luckily, I’ll be able to change that back :)

  15. Hint: gBrowser

  16. Usability tests are great and all, but I can’t help but say that tabs are really not understood by non-techies quite yet. Because they are hidden from users in firefox by default, and aren’t an option in explorer, people just don’t understand them.

    I don’t really like many of the things that this group got out of this study it the way of what should and should not be implemented. Instead I think it should be understood that we have differant preferances as to how the tabs should function. Give us the best default setup you can so that non-techies start to catch on, but also give us options.

    I use tab browser extension and have my middle click set up to open links in new tabs in the background, middle click closes tabs when I click on the actual tab, and if I middle click on a blank space on the tab bar, it opens the most recently closed tab. Tab bar is always shown, double click on bar opens new tab.

  17. Put close buttons on the tabs

    For me that is one of the most annoying things in Firefox, and that is one of the reasons why Safari is still my default browser

    Change the closing order of tabs

    No, please don’t!

    Implement an “Open links that would open new windows in tabs” preference

    Now, that would be a hella nice feature in any tabbed browser.

  18. I always right-click on my tabs to close them. They never have to be active.

  19. I agree with all three points, and this is why I sometimes use Opera more than Firefox, as it implements all of them by default.

  20. November 9, 2005 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Kim: LOL! For some odd reason that never occurred to me!

    *goes hiding in a corner*

  21. In truth - I find using tabbed browsing so damned annoying and clunky that I avoid it at all costs! And which browser do I use most? Firefox!! :)

  22. I always use middle click (wheel). Got so used to it that I can’t imagine how I lived without it in my IE days :)

  23. Implement an Open links that would open new windows in tabs preference

    Now, that would be a hella nice feature in any tabbed browser.

    That’s already implemented in Firefox 1.5

    I wouldn’t like to see any close buttons inside the tabs - I use the middle mouse button exclusively as several others in this thread.

    Regarding “ownership” of opened tabs. I tend to browse through a page and open whatever links are included thus rendering me say 5-10 unfocused tabs, that I read later. What I don’t like is how Opera implemeted the closing procedure so that I always wind up in the “parent” tab, when I want to come to the next/previous opened tab instead (just as Firefox has implemented it today)

  24. I prefer Firefox’s tab close order as it is. If I load a handful of search hits into tabs, I want to visit each of those sites, without returning to the Google results between each. The close order corresponds to the visual order of the tabs, which seems intuitive to me.

    I use middle-click or [Ctrl]+[W] to close tabs in Firefox. To that end, I have hidden the tab close button altogether. Having a close button on each tab seems like it would consume far too much tab bar real estate. All the while, I’m certain that I would be inadvertently closing tabs and spending time trying to get back to where I was.

    As for opening tabs for pages that would otherwise open in new windows: Firefox already has this option. I only ever have one Firefox window. However, the options must be enabled in the UI with browser.tabs.showSingleWindowModePrefs or changed directly in the prefs. The options were hidden due to reports of crashes, though I have never suffered any ill effects.

    Hopefully, any changes to the behavior will be user-configurable preferences.

  25. Definately agree on the last two points. The first point I did not think of but does make perefect sense that it should work the sugested way.

  26. It might be in every Opera-users interest to understand why Firefox is become more popular than Opera: Because after a clean Fx-install (that is whitout any extensions) Fx looks and behaves just like IE (without all the CSS rendering bugs ++ though). This points to (in my opinion) the most important aspect of usabillity: recognition.

    Anyways, about tabs in Fx: Personally I think a clean install of Fx sucks. Don´t get me wrong, its after all the one and only browser for me, but the first thing I do is download and install Tab Mix Plus - an extension with all the preferences I need to get going with my daily routines. It includes the option to add a close-button to every tab, something that I really miss in the default preferences setting in Fx.

    If tabs (with or without) close-buttons on them seems confusing for the average web-user, it might not be a good idea to implement them as default. But I’d really like to see that as an option in Fx without needing any extension of some sort.

    Since I think of recognition as the most important aspect of usabillity (ok, not in all cases, but many), it will be interesting to see if the Google/Fx-team will be able to introduce nice behaving tabs that people get used to and that these will be recognized by the average web-user in the future.

  27. I have no problems at all with FireFox’s implementation of tabbed browsing. I can right-click on any tab to close the tab. If I want a link to open in the same tab, I just click on it. If I want to open it in a new tab, I option+click on it.

    The main reason for me for using FireFox over any other browser is the developer toolbar, and the livehttpheaders extension. To me, they are both invaluable, and I would put up with a lot of hassle to keep using those.

  28. It might be in every Opera-users interest to understand why Firefox is become more popular than Opera

    I don’t think so, merely in the developers interest.

    Frankly I think the way Opera 8 handles things is pretty damn clear. Use window modus and ctrl+n produces a new window, use “tab” modus and ctrl+n produces a new “tab”.

    Actually with the exception of people who already used Firefox with extensions, those I introduced to both browsers after Opera 8.5 was free, in all cases use Opera now instead of IE or Firefox. So my personal experience differs greatly from the apperently different global trend.

  29. Flock has an option to open new windows in tabs (which can cause probs when you intend to open popups), has a close button on each tab and (most importantly to me) allows you to reorder the tabs by dragging.

  30. Adam: since Flock is based on some (or perhaps all) features of Firefox 1.5 you’ll have it in 1.5, which I really recommend people to use. It’s fast, stable and not so much of a memory hog as 1.0.x was.

    If you want js-popups to keep on opening as they are intended, just open the config page - about:config - and set the value = 2 which I think is set as default in 1.5

  31. November 11, 2005 by Court Kizer

    Wow, everything they learned is exactly like Safari! How is it that Apple starts a browser 6 years later and gets tabbing right but Mozilla couldn’t “test” or use some #()$#()$ common sense?

    The entire UI team at mozilla should have been fired a long time ago, these people exist because they are all friends… either that or the people in charge are to stupid to hire real designers.

  32. If you think about it, why should a newly created tab have a ‘back’ history? It’s a new tab.

    When you open a new browser window, does it have a ‘back’ history? No. Why should this be different? “Well, because I opened it while browsing a web site.” So? If you want to go back in your history, go to the respective tab.

    Yes, it may make it somewhat easier, however this feature somewhat degrades the term of a “new” tab.

  33. These are the very issues I’ve found annoying about tabbed browsing. Yet, I still find it better than opening 3.2 gazillion windows at a time.

  34. Where do you guys propose to put the tab title text when you have both a favicon and a close button and 25 open tabs?

    I already have ‘display: none’ on the favicons in userChrome.css, and would have to do the same thing for those 25 X’s. SeaMonkey and Mozilla have the right idea, by default, a new tab button on the left end of the row, and a close active tab button on the right end. It took me 0 time to figure out. I rarely close a wrong tab accidentally.

    [me]wonders where the comment guidelines/markdown syntax actually live[/me]

  35. November 15, 2005 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Felix: Safari handles it by not showing favicons in the tabs and by creating a menu for the tabs that don’t fit in the row. I’m not saying it’s the best way, but it’s worth taking a look at.

    Follow the link to get to the guidelines :-). If it doesn’t work I’m interested in knowing your setup so I can fix it.

  36. good .. firefox follows Opera’s lead. :)

  37. One of the most irritating features of Firefox is that dialog that pops up when I’m closing the window with multiple tabs. The only choice is to close everything or to cancel. I’d much prefer the dialog to give me the choice to close the tab I’m viewing, too. That’d be my preferred behavior so I’d just set it and forget it.

  38. After reading these comments, I now realize that I may be the only person on earth who doesn’t like a close button on each tab. I have two issues with this. First, it takes up too much real-estate on each tab. Second, I’ve accidently closed a tab I didn’t mean to in Safari more times than I’ve been frustrated by the right hand close button in Firefox.

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