The Firefox Home Tab

Many of the mockups of Firefox’s new interface, dating all the way back to August 2009, have featured a small home tab.   But up until now, I haven’t had a chance to explain the various ideas surrounding Home, elaborate how it fits into our broader cross platform and cross device strategy, and answer some really basic questions, like what will happen if the user has already customized their home page.

 

Firefox Home: Your First App Tab

Well, at least that was the idea since we were planning on introducing Home at the same time as introducing the concept of App tabs.  Now it will probably be your third or fourth App Tab in terms of order of creation, but "Home: Your Left Most App Tab!" doesn’t really have the same ring to it :)  Either way, Home is an application created by Mozilla that runs in Firefox, and it helps you manage your online life. 

Home is built on top of Sync, acts as a launch pad  to all of your encrypted personal data, your personal Web.   Our goal is to provide a consistent Home experience on every OS, including the classic desktop environments of Windows, Linux and OS X, as well as the mobile environments of Android, Maemo, and iOS:

We launched our Home iOS app last July, and the desktop Home app tab is still currently being developed, but nonetheless the two are part of what will eventually be a unified cross platform strategy.  Home will be available on every single platform, including platforms that are restricting us from shipping the full Firefox browser.

But home is more than just a consistent cross device experience for users, it’s also going to be one of the things that makes Firefox truly unique in the marketplace.  In a competitive landscape quickly heading towards interface commoditization (back+forward+fast!), Home  will provide Firefox users with a personalized experience unlike anything else on the market.  Going beyond an ever decreasing browser frame, Home provides users with a dashboard to their life online.

 

What Types of Data will Home Provide Access To?

The UX team is still in the process of determining Home’s initial feature set and interface, but we’ve definitely had a lot of time to brainstorm the types of personalized data that we may be interesting in surfacing to users.  Here are just some of the things we are looking at, from design work by John Wayne Hill (Firefox UX intern), Madhava Enros and Stuart Parmenter (mobile), and Kevin Fox (web apps).

 

A Mechanism for Application-Level Notification

Another nice advantage of the Home Tab in desktop Firefox is that it introduces a less intrusive and more ambient way for Firefox to provide users with notifications for particular events, like a security update being available, or you needing to provide your new Sync password.  Similar to how email clients glow when you receive a new message, the Home Tab will glow when Firefox has something to ask you.  These types of asynchronous notifications are considerably friendlier and more respectful than throwing up a large modal dialog box:

Introducing Users to The Concept of Tab Browsing

One of the really nice properties of surfacing home as an Application Tab, is that anything launched off of it will open in a new tab.  What’s great about this is that many users who have always relied on the home button in Web browsers (past and present), haven’t discovered the advantages of tab browsing yet, and tend to follow very linear and singular navigation paths.  For instance, a common start up sequence for these users might be:

 

In this sequence, the user only has one tab open, because they are relying on clicking the home button for navigational Google searches, and by default each new task overtakes their current task.  It’s like an OS that can only have one window open at a time.

By switching these users over to the Home Tab, the same sequence of actions (relying on the house icon) produces three separate tabs.  As users notice that things like their email, auction, and baseball game are still present, they can quickly pick up the core advantages of tab browsing: reduced load time and multi-tasking on different things simultaneously.

 

Following the practice of "show, don’t tell" this interface introduces even the most stubborn IE6 users to the advantages of tab browsing, without them having to read a single support document or manual.  Note that users who rely heavily on the current Home Button for search still haven’t transitioned to the always available search bar, so there is already a strong correlation between relying on the Home Button, and navigational sequences that are common to pre-tab browsers.

 

What if the User Has Already Specified a Custom Home Page?

Because we want to place Firefox UI inside of the Home tab (like session restore, or access to your online accounts), we need to make some changes to how we deal with customized home pages.  This is partly to make sure that these aspects of Firefox’s UI are always available (unless the user has actively removed the Home tab), and partly because we want to have consistent support documents that don’t include too many if-then clauses.

A custom home page (or pages) will become app tabs.  But the experience of launching the browser will be the same.  For instance, if you like many users  have set Facebook as your home page (now called "start page"), it will still be the active tab when you launch Firefox:

The only real difference is that you’ll need to click on the Facebook icon instead of the house to get back to it.

 

The Home Tab Versus New Tab

The Home tab and New tab are both launching points to a new destination on the Web, so what’s the difference between them?

This is actually going to be the topic of my next post, but the short version is that I believe the Home tab and New tab represent two very different use cases.  One is primarily a mouse driven browse-based interface, and the other primarily a keyboard driven search-based interface.  One is complex, and the other is simple.  One is the place you go when you are bored, and other is the place you go when you happen to already know your next destination on the Web.

16 comments

  1. So I guess since Firefox 5 is already feature frozen (!) that this will be in Firefox 6 or later?
    Is there an extension implementing this we can test right now?

  2. sounds all reasonable – but what about giving the new Home tab in addition to the mouse-based UI also a touch-based UI, maybe as an option?

  3. This means that users can’t close their homepage anymore doesn’t it? If their homepage is something that they check and then close, this could be annoying. It could be distracting (lead to checking too often for ill-disciplined procrastinators) as well as resource intensive (constant network traffic, CPU, RAM). That and it’s a pretty small cursor target.

    Also, just a point of information, I often open new tabs and then use the mouse, not the keyboard. I use the awesome dropdown as a list of bookmarks (it’s based on frecency plus adaptations).

    I do like most of this proposal. I just think that a custom homepage should open as a normal tab, not an app-tab.

  4. I have discussed this elsewhere before, but there are a couple of points you need to address, as the devs:

    – users who have custom hope pages but don’t want see them anymore after a few moments of browsing (solution: allow custom home pages to launch in normal tabs too);
    – users who close their custom home pages and want to open them again later (solution: provide links for custom home pages in the home tab, or, alternatively, force custom homepages to be displayed as bookmarks in a specific bookmark folder – possibly called “web apps” or something similar – which may raise problems if said home pages aren’t web apps to begin with).

    Are there any plans to address these issues, are they ever gonna be relevant at all, or are you guys just flying past them hoping the users who are affected by them will just deal with it or jump ship?

  5. i have loved the idea of a home tab ever since app/pin tabs were introduced in chrome/firefox..in fact when i saw the design of yatrik solanki in the home tab design challenge i was mesmerized.. i even started working on a home tab for chrome(sorry have just js n css skills and that time jetpack was not ready … ) but left it due study problems.. i hope you bring this feature to firefox soon.. nothing can be more useful than to start a browser and find all your useful infos and bookmarks and session at one place.. btw i’m a big fan of yatrik’s idea.. i liked it much more than others.. :)

  6. Love it, especially that last graphic. Look forward to seeing what you guys come up with to fill that \browsing\ space. (simple RSS reader? Please? :)

  7. Too forceful, optional to disable? YOU are too much blue sky for US…

  8. This is very cool Alex. I can’t wait to see it in action. Firefox 5? Or Firefox 6 do you think?

    Also, what about the new tab page? I’ve heard talk of that for some time now. Thanks!

    Matt

  9. I’m pretty excited at this concept. I haven’t bothered to designate a home page since I discovered the option years ago to have Firefox automatically save my tabs upon closing, and I’m very interested in seeing what you guys do with this. As someone who is quite easily distracted while trying to get work done, I absolutely agree that a new tab should bring up a blank screen rather than a speed-dial.

    Two questions: you say that a Home application will be available on some platforms that do not allow Firefox. To what platforms specifically are you referring, and what is the use of seeing your browsing data if you can’t actually do anything with it on that platform?

  10. >The UX team is still in the process of determining Home’s initial feature set and interface, but we’ve definitely had a lot of time to brainstorm the types of personalized data that we may be interesting in surfacing to users.

    The home tab sounds like a solution in search of a problem. Where is the demand for a home tab?

  11. Hmm, so what about those of us who set the home page to about:blank ? Will we be forced to have an app tab with about:blank always open?

    About your concerns that users may not know how to use tabs:
    1. What does the Test Pilot data show?
    2. How is the ‘Home tab’ concept better than simply having the ‘Home’ toolbar button open a new tab *by default*?

  12. Chrome New Tab is very interesting in that it forces users to think about new possibilities when creating new tabs. Though I could see that the new tab button should hold the contents of the current about:home, and home should be home pages (with tab previews), restore previous session button, most frequently used tab previews, or last bookmarked or unsorted bookmarks, and list multiple home pages across the top. The new tab I would love to see us have speed dial previews and web search.

    Having new tab with a speed dial on Chrome is pretty awesome, I use it everyday at work and it faster than accessing bookmarks with right click choose open in new tab, since I want open a new tab, I hit that, see the speed dial and click, since I use have at least 3 web pages I need open or to reopen frequently. If Chrome had an additional take to my home page button I wouldn’t even use it in this scenario.

    For work, I also use IE8 and Firefox for all my work. I use Firefox not for my administrative tasks like I do with Chrome but for actually using web apps and web pages lookups. For that, I load a custom html in a tab as my home page, so I visually stay organized and don’t have to sift through bookmark folders, etc to find the right link and that is why I think Chrome’s new tab/home page works great for this scenario since I hit on average about 20-30 different links with mostly all the same URLs, so I need to describe bookmarks and organize them for easy retrieval.

    For the Home tab, I’m more interested in hearing about whats going to go in that tab and whats going to go in the new tab, i want to see concept designs and ui layout ideas.

    With piped homepages, they are nice but since the personal bookmark bar came out and session restore, I don’t use multiple home pages like I used to, even though I go to the same pages a lot at home and work. Though I would like to see how you can list the multiple home pages as links across the top of the page in the home tab page.

  13. Naysayers aside, there’s some great thinking here. I’m always encouraged to see Mozilla continuing to innovate when no one else will.

    To those who say this isn’t good for users because of this, that, and the other, one thing I almost always see in Firefox UI changes is that those users who have the technical ability to decide how they use Firefox can continue using the browser how they want (occasionally a preference might need to be flipped on or off) and those who simply do things because that’s the way they’ve always done them are guided by the changes to a better way.

    To be frank, those who are still using an antiquated workflow like Home>Search>Email>Home>Search>eBay>Home>Search>ESPN need something to change and force them to rethink what they’re doing. It could be quite frustrating for a few minutes, but change is never easy. Was I frustrated trying to learn an entire different mindset of managing windows/applications when I switched to Mac after using Windows for a decade? Yes. My mind wanted to think the way Windows wants me to think. Once I gave into working differently and the benefits became overwhelmingly clear, Windows became a prison that I could never return to. Ultimately, if the user is informed, Firefox gives them the power to use it however they desire. However if the user is uninformed they should not be given enough rope to hang themselves with – the best default workflow should be decided for them.

  14. “The home tab sounds like a solution in search of a problem. Where is the demand for a home tab?”

    You look like a competitor engineer who doesn’t like to see Mozilla innovating. Typical. :)

  15. I really disagree with many points in this article.

    As someone has already pointed out, customized home page really should not be an app tab. It is distractive, takes up more resource, and a user may not want it open all the time.

    At the same time, I also disagree with the big distinction between the home tab and the new tab that you’re preluding to. I think you’re not exactly thinking like an average user and overthought the whole thing. Not everyone opens a new tab with Ctrl+T and start typing the address right away. An average user who knows of tab browsing will most likely hit the + button, not Ctrl+T. In that case, it’s very mouse-centric. In addition, after using Chrome’s new tab page for the first time, I must say that the speed dial seems so much more natural to me (and I would say I’m a power user). In reality, opening up the window for the first time (arriving at the home tab) is not that much different than opening a new tab at all. I think this will especially be the case for people who opens and closes the browser all the time. The two tasks are virtually very similar — the new tab page should be like the home page in that it is sending the user to a new place. Most of the time, these new places are usually your frequently visited places too (emails, facebook, favorite blogs). Very rarely does one think “Oh. I have to go to this website I haven’t gone to in ages. I should just open a new tab and type in the name/url of the place right away”. It’s mostly “I should check my email. Let’s start a new tab so that my current tab remains. Click new tab. Click email.” Also, I really do not see any harm in using the blank space as a launcher instead. That space is unused. If you worry about distraction so much, then maybe make the launcher and stuff faded until the user focuses away from the URL bar by using a mouse or something?

    I quite like the idea of a home tab as an app tab though. It really is an elegant solution to get more people to use tab browsing. If power users don’t like it occupying space, it should be very easy to get rid off too. I’m just saying that the new tab should behave very similarly. As for the unintrusive notification thing, I’ve barely ever gotten any notification for the whole browser itself…?

  16. Also, I must say, web browsing in general is very mouse centric. You scroll web pages all the time instead of typing all the time. Users will likely want to continue using a mouse when scrolling web page ->new tab->go somewhere new->scroll new page, instead of switching back and forth between the mouse and the keyboard. This is especially true with a laptop where the trackpad is closer to you than the keyboard. The lack of speed dial in Firefox really baffles me.