Last week I attended CHI 2007 in San Jose. For those not familiar with CHI, it’s a yearly conference where people studying human computer interaction come to present their latest work. CHI is a big conference: 4 days, 3 time slots per day, and ~16 different sessions per time slot.
As usual, a wide variety of interesting research was presented at the conference, and this year a lot of it was directly relevant to the user experience of browsing the Web. Here is a quick recap of the sessions and papers from CHI 2007 that are related to Firefox and Web browser UI:
Using Cognitive Modeling to Improve Tabbed Browsing
Ever wonder why the close button was moved from the far right side of the browser to be on each tab? Did you know that Mozilla coordinated with Google and NASA Ames in order to make the decision? This paper by Andrea Knight, Guy Pyrzak, and Collin Green explains how a combination of user studies and cognitive modeling software was used to improve the user interface for closing tabs in Firefox 2.
New Ways to Interact with Your Web Browser
PageLinker by Aurélien Tabard, et al. is a Firefox extension that allows you to create bookmarks that only appear when you are on a particular page. These bookmarks are also automatically created when you copy information from one page and paste it into a search field on another. This new contextual bookmark interface was field tested with a group of biologists (biologists happen to be information manipulation power users).
The team working on PageLinker found that “contextual bookmarks improve web page revisitation and that, unlike history and bookmarks mechanisms, they are less prone to information overload.” PageLinker is available on mozdev.org.
SocialBrowsing is a Firefox extension that puts information you are viewing on the Web in the context of your person social network. The authors Jennifer Golbeck and Michael Wasser explain that it “adds social context to the web browsing experience.” For instance, when viewing a movie SocialBrowsing can show you what your friends thought of it, providing this information through a tooltip:
Similarly, SocialBrowsing can show you how you are connected to the author of a blog post by analyzing your respective social networks (encoded using FOAF):
End User Programming and Automation
The Firefox Extension Koala by Greg Little et al. is a “a collaborative programming-by-demonstration system that records, edits, and plays back user interactions as pseudo-natural language scripts that are both human and machine-interpretable.” It’s like Greasemonkey, but instead of writing code you just tell it what to do. They are able to achieve this level of interaction because “Koala leverages sloppy programming that interprets pseudo-natural language instructions (as opposed to formal syntactic statements) in the context of a given web page’s elements and actions.”
Koala is being developed by a team at IBM’s Almaden Research Center, and they have come by the Mozilla office in Mountain View on several occasions to update us on their progress. While Koala is not currently publicly available, they hope to open source the code soon. Additionally, an accessibility feature in Firefox 3 being developed by Aaron Leventhal will be based on Koala’s ability to correctly label form elements on a Web page by analyzing the surrounding text.
Marmite is a Firefox extension that has an interface similar to Apple’s Automator and enables users to automate actions on the Web. The authors Jeffrey Wong and Jason Hong have created a system that “lets end-users create so-called mashups that re-purpose and combine existing web content and services.”
In Marmite “data is processed by a series of operators in a manner similar to Unix pipes.” Here is an end-user created mashup that displays events from upcoming.org using Yahoo Maps:
Studies about Web Browser Usage and Tagging
This paper studies the action of revisitation, returning to a page you have previously been to. Hartmut Obendorf et al. present the “results of an extensive long-term click-stream study that captured the Web usage behavior of 25 participants with diverse backgrounds and tasks.” There is a wealth of very interesting data in the paper about Web page revisitation, and far too much to quickly summarize. Here is a chart displaying how methods for initiating Web page revisits change based on the amount of time to the revisit:
Not entirely surprising, this paper finds that “neither browser history nor bookmarks seem to be reliable tools for long-term rediscovery. Instead, users re-searched and re-traced the Web for the desired information.” Hopefully Places will have a noticeable effect when this research team revisits revisiting revisitation. We will definitely be considering their findings while working on Places UI.
This paper studies the action of monitoring, “when users return to previously viewed web pages to view new or updated information.” Based on 40 interviews, Melanie Kellar et al. classify monitoring into 6 types of information tasks:
The paper goes on to describe the design implications for each type of monitoring task: “The implications of our findings suggest that very different functionality is required to support different information monitoring activities. To this end, we have developed recommendations that provide insight into how monitoring activities may be more effectively supported.”
This paper presents a darwinistic approach to UI design: Juan Quiroz et al. describe a system that “uses an interactive genetic algorithm to evolve XUL user interface layouts by combining objective and subjective metrics.” Genetic algorithms are literally what they sound like, “search algorithms based on the principles of genetics and natural selection.” Except in this case instead of Galápagos Finches, the XUL is evolving. It’s a fascinating read.
Not commonly found in the same sentence, CHI featured an interactive session on the Semantic Web and HCI. Notes from the session are available on the Semantic Web User Interaction wiki, and the slides are online as well. Also worth checking out are mSpace, mSpace Mobile, and Exhibit.
This session was not strictly about Web browser UI, but out of all of the sessions at CHI, this one was by far my favorite. Unfortunately Blake Ross canceled at the last minute, but Aza Raskin of Humanized captivated the audience with a presentation about the failings of the traditional desktop UI. He demoed Enso which allows you to interact with your computer using typed commands instead of a direct manipulation GUI, as well as some ZUIs (zoom-able user interfaces). The following day Aza presented the same talk at Google, and it is now up on Google Video: Away with Applications: the Death of the Desktop. It is a fantastic talk. If you have a spare 1:26 minutes, it’s well worth your time.