Categories: Firefox

Coming Back to Firefox as a User Researcher

Reflecting on two years of working on the browser that first showed me the internet

Firefox illustration by UX designer Gabrielle Lussier

Last week marked two years of working on Firefox. For me, this was a return to the browser I fervently used in my early internet days (circa 2004–2011). I don’t recall exactly when I left, and whether it was abrupt or gradual, but at some point Firefox was out and Chrome was the browser on my screen. Looking back, I’m pretty sure it was notifications telling me Gmail would work better on Chrome that led me there. Oof.

I certainly wasn’t alone. The storied history of browsers (including not one, but two browser wars) is marked by intense competition and shifting landscapes. Starting around 2010–2011, as Chrome’s market share went up, Firefox’s went down.

A doorway to the internet

When I started working on Firefox, a colleague likened a browser to a doorway — you walk through several a day, but don’t think much about them. It’s a window to the internet, but it’s not the internet. It helps you search the web, but it’s not a search engine. It’s a universal product, but many struggle to describe it.

So what is it, then, and why am I so happy I get to spend my days thinking about it?

A browser is an enabler, facilitating online exploration, learning, work, communication, entertainment, shopping, and more. More technically, it renders web pages, uses code to display content, and provides navigation and organization tools that allow people to explore, interact with, and retrieve information on the web.

With use cases galore, there are challenges. It’s a product that needs to be good at many things.

To help our design, product and engineering stakeholders meet these challenges, the Firefox User Research team tackles topics including managing information in the browser (what’s your relationship to tabs?), privacy in the browser, when and how people choose browsers (if they choose at all), and why they stay or leave. Fascinating research topics feel endless in the browser world.

My introduction to browser users

For my first project at Mozilla, I conducted 17, hour-long, in-depth interviews with browser users. A formative introduction to how people think about and use browsers. When I look back on that study, I recall how much I learned about a product that I previously hadn’t given much thought to. Here I summarize some of those initial learnings.

Browser adoption on desktop vs mobile: Firefox is a browser that people opt-in to. Unlike other mainstream browsers, it doesn’t come pre-installed on devices. This means that users must actively choose Firefox, bypassing the default. While many people do this — close to 200 million monthly on Firefox — using the default is common, and even more so on mobile. When talking to users of various browsers, the sentiment that “I just use what came on the device” is particularly prevalent for mobile.

Why is this so? For one, people have different needs on their desktop and mobile browsers (e.g. conducting complex work vs quick searches), leading to different behaviors. The presence of stand-alone apps on mobile that help people accomplish some of the tasks they might have otherwise done in their browser (e.g. email, shopping) also differentiate the experience.

That’s not the whole story, though. Gatekeeping practices by large tech companies, such as self-preferencing and interoperability, play a role. These practices, which Europe’s Digital Markets Act and related remedies like browser choice screens aim to address, limit consumer choice and are especially potent on mobile. In my in-depth interviews, for example, I spoke with a devoted Firefox desktop user. When explaining to me why she used the default browser on her mobile phone, she held up her phone, pointing to the dock at the bottom of her home screen. She wanted quick access to her browser through this dock, and didn’t realize she could replace the default browser that came there with one of her choosing.

Online privacy dilemmasHaving worked on privacy and the protection of personal information in the past, I was keen to learn about users’ attitudes and behaviors towards online privacy. What were their stances? How did they protect themselves? My in-depth interviews revealed that attitudes and feelings range vastly: protective, indifferent, disempowered, resigned. And often, attitudes and values towards privacy don’t align with behaviors. In today’s online world, acting on your values can be hard.

The intention-action gap speaks to the many cases when our attitudes, values or goals are at odds with our behavior. While the draw of convenience and other tradeoffs are certainly at play in the online privacy gap, so too are deceptive digital designs that make it all too difficult to use the internet on your own terms. These include buried privacy settings, complex opt-out processes, and deceptive cookie banners.

Navigating online privacy risks can feel daunting and confusing — and for good reason. One participant in the interviews described it as something that she didn’t have the time or esoteric knowledge for, even though she cared about it:

“It’s so big and complicated for a user like me, you really have to put in the time to figure it out, to understand it. And I don’t have the time for that, I honestly don’t. But that doesn’t stop me from doing things online, because, how, if being online is such an important part of my day?”

On the browser side, the technical aspects of online privacy present a perennial challenge for communicating our protective measures to users. How do we communicate the safeguards we offer users in ways that are accessible and effective?

Browser recommendations: For a product that isn’t top of mind for most people, many are steered to their browsers by word of mouth and other types of recommendations. In fact, we consistently find that around one-third of our users report having recommended Firefox in the past month. That’s more people talking about browsers than I would have imagined.

The people I interviewed spoke about recommendations from family members (“Mom, you need to step up your browser game!” one participant recalled her son saying as he guided her to a new browser), tech-oriented friends, IT departments at work, computer repair shops, and online forums and other communities.

One factor behind personal recommendations is likely that most people are satisfied with their browser. Our quantitative user research team finds high levels of browser satisfaction among not only Firefox users, but the users of other popular browsers examined in their work.

Wrapping up

Coming back to Firefox involved a process of piecing together what had happened to the browser with the little fox. In doing so, I’ve learned a lot about what brings people to browsers, and away from them, and the constrained digital landscape in which these dynamics occur. The web has changed a great deal since Firefox 1.0 was released in 2004, but Mozilla’s goal of fostering an open and accessible internet remains constant.

Thank you for reviewing a draft of this post, Laura Lopez and Rosanne Scholl.