Task Continuity

Gemma Petrie

Research and blog post by Gemma Petrie & Bill Selman

Task Continuity ResearchFor many consumers, software and hardware choices are increasingly becoming choices between incompatible brand ecosystems. In today’s marketplace, a consumer’s smartphone choice is likely to have a far-reaching influence on options for everything from file storage to wearable technology. With each app purchase or third-party service sign-up, consumers become further invested in a closed brand ecosystem. As start-ups are acquired or privacy standards change, consumers may become trapped in an ecosystem that no longer meets their needs.

Mozilla strives to create competitive products and services built with open source technologies, that protect users from vendor lock-in, and that address user needs. We believe supporting these values is not only good for consumers, but is also good for our industry. In February, we conducted a contextual user research study on multi-device task continuity. This user research will help Mozilla design current and future products and services to support users’ behaviors and mental models. This research builds on our our Save, Share, Revisit study conducted earlier this year.

TC Overview

Research Questions

  • Tasks: What tasks require task continuity?
  • Patterns: What are common task continuity strategies, patterns, and work-arounds? Why do they occur?
  • Behaviors: What are current and emergent behaviors related to task continuity activities?
  • Devices: What constitutes a unified experience across devices? Do some devices perform specialized tasks?
  • Context: Given that previous research has focused primarily on work and productivity environments, what do home and work boundaries look like for task continuity? 1
  • Mental Models: What are the expectations, metaphors, and vocabularies in use for task continuity?
  • Tools: How effectively do current features and tools meet continuity needs? Why do challenges occur?


The Mozilla User Research team conducted three weeks of fieldwork in four cities: Columbus, OH; Las Vegas, NV; Nashville, TN; Rochester, NY. We recruited a demographically diverse group of 16 participants. Each participant invited members of their household to participate in the research, giving us 43 total participants between the ages of 7 and 52. All 16 interviews took place in the participants’ homes. In addition to our primary research questions, the semi-structured interviews explored daily life, devices, and integration points. Further, participants provided home tours and engaged in multi-device workflow future thinking exercises.

Device Ecosystems

If you are reading this blog post, there is probably a good chance that you work in the tech or design industry. You likely have fairly advanced technology usage compared to the average person in the United States. Your personal device and service ecosystem might look something like this:

The device and service ecosystem for the average person in the United States includes fewer elements and fewer connection points. For example, here is the ecosystem map of one of the 16 participant groups in our study:

As you can see in these diagrams, the average user has single points of connection between his primary device (MacBook Pro) and all the other devices and services he uses. The advanced user, on the other hand, is utilizing various tools to move content between multiple devices, contexts, and services.

The Task Continuity Model

TC Model

Based on our research, we developed a general model of what the task continuity process looks like for our participants. Task continuity is a behavior cycle with three distinct stages: Discover, Hold/Push, and Recover.

The Discover stage of the task continuity cycle includes tasks or content in an evaluative state. At this stage, the user decides whether or not to (actively or passively) do something with the content.

The Hold/Push stage of the cycle describes the task continuity-enabling action taken by the user. In this stage, users may:

  • Passively hold tasks/content (e.g. By leaving a tab open)
  • Actively hold tasks/content (e.g. By emailing it to themselves)
  • Push tasks/content to others by sharing it (e.g. Posting it on Facebook)

The user may also set a reminder to return to the task/content at this stage (e.g. Set an alarm to call the salon when they open). It is possible for a single action to bridge more than one Hold/Push state (e.g. Re-pinning content on Pinterest shares it with followers and saves it to a board). It is also possible that a user will take multiple actions on the same task/content (e.g. Emailing a news article to myself and a friend).

In the Recover stage of the task continuity cycle, the user is reminded of the task/content (e.g. By seeing an open tab) or recalls the task/content (e.g. Through contextual cues). Relying on memory was one of the most common recovery methods we observed. In order to fully recover the task/content, the user may need to perform additional actions like following a link or reconstructing an activity path.

Once the task/content is recovered, the user is able to continue the task in the Resume stage. Here, the user is able to complete the task or postpone it by re-entering the task continuity cycle.

TC Example

The Task Continuity Model allows us to clearly map the steps involved in a specific task continuity activity. To illustrate, one of our participants discovered a video that he wanted to watch at a different time and on a different device. Here are the actions he performed to achieve this:

    1. Discover: Finds URL for video he wants to watch later.
    2. Push/Hold: Copies URL to email. Sends email reminder to himself.
    3. Recover: That evening, while browsing on his iPad, recalls that he wanted to watch a video from earlier in the day.
    4. Resume: Scans email for reminder message, locates it. Copies URL to iMessage.
    5. Push/Hold: Sends iMessage from tablet.
    6. Recover: On MacMini-connected TV, receives iMessage, copies URL from iMessage to browser.

Research Findings

A selection of our research findings that we believe are the most relevant to UX professionals and engineers:

  • Ad Hoc Workflows: Participants used small, immediate tools such as text messages and screenshots to string together larger tasks.
  • Satisficed: Participants were generally satisfied with their current task continuity workflows, even when they knew they weren’t efficient.
  • Task Continuity Tools: Text messages, screenshots, and email were the primary task continuity strategies.
  • Screenshots: Participants tended to use screenshots rather than texting links. People were performing complex tasks using screenshots (like managing employee schedules).
  • Re-Searching: People tend to re-initiate a search to pull up content on a different device rather than pass it through email, text, or some other method.
  • Third-Party Services: While tools like Evernote may be popular in technology circles, they are essentially unknown outside them.
  • Cloud Storage: Most participants had been exposed to cloud storage services, often through work, but their personal use was usually limited to free accounts.
  • Organization is Work: Most participants avoid task continuity actions that require organization. Instead, participants relied on recovery techniques such as memory, scanning lists, and searching to recover tasks.
  • Barriers: Participants choose a path of least resistance to complete a task. When confronted by a barrier, most participants will detour; sometimes those detours become a journey away from a product or service. Barriers we observed included authentication, forced organization, and overzealous privacy and security measures.

Further Research

This research provided a valuable foundation and framework for our understanding of task continuity, but it is important to acknowledge that it was conducted only in the United States. We were particularly surprised by the reliance on texting and screenshots and believe it is important to explore this behavior in areas where carrier-based SMS programs are less popular. We plan to build upon these findings by expanding this research program to Asia in May 2015.


Save, Share, Revisit

Gemma Petrie

Save Share RevisitIn early January, we conducted user research to refresh our understanding of how people save, share, and revisit content with the goal of building our knowledge base for a larger contextual research project on multi-device task continuity that is currently being conducted. (More on that in a future blog post.)


We recruited eight participants to engage in a three-day diary study to document their save, share, and revisiting behavior. Instructions were emailed to participants each morning based on daily themes: Saving, Sharing, Retrieving. Each evening, the participants were prompted to submit their diary entries and answer a few additional questions. Based on these responses, half of the participants were selected to participate in an additional 60-minute video interview with the researcher to explore these themes in greater detail.

Primary Findings

  1. Most people are using low-tech systems to save, share, and manage their content. There is a tendency in tech circles to overestimate the popularity of services like Pocket and Evernote, when in fact the most competitive task continuity resources are basic services like email, local storage, text messages, and screenshots.
  2. Most people are aware that their personal system isn’t perfect, and in fact often cumbersome to maintain, but other solutions are perceived as some combination of absent, confusing, or limited by storage/price.

SavePeople tend to save content to their devices, rather than to third-party systems. Some of the participants had tried services like Dropbox or iCloud, but abandoned them when they ran out of free storage space. Utilizing free local storage means people always know where to find things. If saving locally isn’t possible, people will often take a screenshot of the content or send it to their own email account in order to save it.

“If there’s a way I can physically save the article I would save it to my device or SIM card. If I can’t do that, I will take a screenshot of the articles and later go back and view them” – P6

“I found a picture of a toy I want to buy my daughter. I took a screenshot on my phone and I will go to the link in the pic using my computer later to show my mom.” -P2

For most participants, alternate device access was not a big concern when saving content. In fact, most of the time, people intended to revisit on the same device. When saving content, most people intended to revisit it within a short time frame – usually the same day or within a few days. This was due to the fact that people believed they would “forget” to return to the content if too much time passed.

ShareFor many participants, the line between sharing and saving was blurred. The primary methods for sharing content – Facebook, email, and text messages – where valued not only because they made it easy to share, but because they also made it easy to revisit.

“Social media and email services make it easy to revisit content because they log and save everything.” – P3

“I found Crockpot recipes on Facebook that I wanted to try, so I re-posted it to my Facebook wall.” – P7

RevisitParticipants used a variety of low-tech methods to revisit content. The primary methods included relying on the URL bar to autocomplete URLs based on browser history, following links in emails, and leaving browser windows open.

Further Research

The Firefox UX research team is currently conducting a contextual user research project in multiple cities to learn more about multi-device task continuity strategies. These findings will add depth to our current understanding and help us design experiences that will support and expand on these user patterns. Stay tuned for more information on this work.

Find it Faster: The New Search Interface in Firefox

Philipp Sackl


The new search Interface in FirefoxHow often have you done a web search, already knowing that you would click the first result that looked like a Wikipedia page?

Quite often? Then Firefox is about to make your life easier. With the new one click searches, you can instantly find what you are looking for across the web.

Find anything quickly on any page

When typing a search term into the Firefox search box, you will notice two new things: first, we improved the design of search suggestions to make them look a lot more organized. And second: there is an array of buttons below your search suggestions. These buttons allow you to find your search term directly on a specific site quickly and easily.

We are shipping Firefox with a set of pre-installed search engines that are tailored to your language. You can easily show and hide them in your search preferences.

Configuring search preferences
But you shouldn’t be limited to any default set we provide. That’s why adding additional search engines is easy. Are you a web developer? Then how about adding MDN and Stack Overflow to your one click searches? Writing a paper and looking up synonyms every day? Add a dictionary site! Just click on the magnifying glass in the search field while on the site and select the search engine you’d like to add.

Adding new search engines

Firefox is all about choice, and with the new UI, searching is now more flexible and powerful than ever. Coming soon to a Firefox near you!

Why Do We Conduct Qualitative User Research?

Bill Selman


The following post is based on a talk I presented at MozFest about interviewing users.

I recently had a conversation with a former colleague who now works for a major social network. In the course of our conversation this former colleague said to me, “You know, we have all the data in the world. We know what our users are doing and have analytics to track and measure it, but we don’t know why they do it. We don’t have any frameworks for understanding behavior outside of what we speculate about inside the building.”

In many technology organizations, the default assumption of user research is that it will be primarily quantitative research such as telemetry analyses, surveys, and A/B testing. Technology and business organizations often default to a positivist worldview and subsequently believe that quantitative results that provide numeric measures have the most value. The hype surrounding big data methods (and the billions spent on marketing by vendors making certain you know about their enterprise big data tools) goes hand-in-hand with the perceived correctness of this set of assumptions. Given this ecosystem of belief, it’s not surprising that user research employing quantitative methods is perceived by many in our industry as the only user research an organization would need to conduct.

I work as a Lead User Researcher on Firefox. While I do conduct some quantitative user research, the focus of most of my work is qualitative research. In the technology environment described above, the qualitative research we conduct is sometimes met with skepticism. Some audiences believe our work is too “subjective” or “not reproducible.” Others may believe we simply run antiquated, market research-style focus groups (for the record, the Mozilla UR team doesn’t employ focus groups as a methodology).

I want to explain why qualitative research methods are essential for technology user research because of one well-documented and consistently observed facet of human social life: the concept of homophily.

This is a map of New York City based purely on the ethnicity of residents. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other, and each dot is 25 residents. Of course, there are historical and cultural reasons for the clustering, but these factors are part of the overall social dynamic. https://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf/

This is a map of New York City based on the ethnicity of residents. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other, and each dot is 25 residents. Of course, there are historical and cultural reasons for the clustering, but these factors are part of the overall social dynamic.
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf/

Homophily is the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others (the now classic study of homophily in social networks). In other words, individuals are more likely to associate with others based on similarities rather than differences. Social scientists have studied social actors associating along multiple types of ascribed characteristics (status homophily) including gender, ethnicity, economic and social status, education, and occupation. Further, homophily exists among groups of individuals based on internal characteristics (value homophily) including values, beliefs, and attitudes. Studies have demonstrated both status and value homophilic clustering in smaller ethnographic studies and larger scale analyses of social network associations such as political beliefs on Twitter.

Photos on Flickr taken in NY by tourists and locals. Blue pictures are by locals. Red pictures are by tourists. Yellow pictures might be by either. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf

Photos on Flickr taken in NY by tourists and locals. Blue pictures are by locals. Red pictures are by tourists. Yellow pictures might be by either. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf

I bring up this concept to emphasize how those of us who work in technology form our own homophilic bubble. We share similar experiences, information, beliefs, and processes about not just how to design and build products and services, but also in how many of us use those products and services. These beliefs and behaviors become reinforced through the conversations we have with colleagues, the news we read in our press daily, and the conferences we attend to learn from others within our industry. The most insidious part of this homophilic bubble is how natural and self-evident the beliefs, knowledge, and behaviors generated within it appears to be.

Here’s another fact: other attitudes, beliefs, and motivations exist outside of our technology industry bubble. Many members of these groups use our products and services. Other groups share values and statuses that are similar to the technology world, but there are other, different values and different statuses. Further, there are values and statuses that are radically different from ours so as to be not assumed in the common vocabulary of our own technology industry homophilic bubble. To borrow from former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, “there are also unknown unknowns, things we don’t know we don’t know.”

This is all to say that insights, answers, and explanations are limited by the breadth of a researcher’s understanding of users’ behaviors. The only way to increase the breadth of that understanding is by actually interacting with and investigating behaviors, beliefs, and assumptions outside of our own behaviors, beliefs, and assumptions. Qualitative research provides multiple methodologies for getting outside of our homophilic bubble. We conduct in situ interviews, diary studies, and user tests (among other qualitative methods) in order to uncover these insights and unknown unknowns. The most exciting part of my own work is feeling surprised with a new insight or observation of what our users do, say, and believe. In research on various topics, we’ve seen and heard so many surprising answers.

There is no one research method that satisfies answering all of our questions. If the questions we are asking about user behavior, attitudes, and beliefs are based solely on assumptions formed in our homophilic bubble, we will not generate accurate insights about our users no matter how large the dataset. In other words, we only know what we know and can only ask questions framed about what we know. If we are measuring, we can only measure what we know to ask. Quantitative user research needs qualitative user research methods in order to know what we should be measuring and to provide examples, theories, and explanations. Likewise, qualitative research needs quantitative research to measure and validate our work as well as to uncover larger patterns we cannot see.

An example of quantitative and qualitative research working iteratively.

An example of quantitative and qualitative research working iteratively.

It is a disservice to users and ourselves to ask only how much or how often and to avoid understanding why or how. User research methods work best as an accumulation of triangulation points of data in a mutually supportive, on-going inquiry. More data points from multiple methods mean deeper insights and a deeper understanding. A deeper connection with our users means more human-centered and usable technology products and services. We can only get at that deeper connection by leaving the technology bubble and engaging with the complex, messy world outside of it. Have the courage to feel surprised and your assumptions challenged.

(Thanks to my colleague Gemma Petrie for her thoughts and suggestions.)

Re-imagine Firefox on tablet

Yuan Wang


Nowadays mobile space is dominated by applications that are created for mobile phones. Designers often start designing an application for phones first and then scale it for tablets. However, people interact with tablets quite differently due to the unique context of use. For a browser on tablet, you may find people use it in a kitchen for recipes, on a couch reading or shopping, or at home streaming music and videos. How can Firefox innovate and re-imagine the experience for tablet users?


Design process

Beginning in January 2014, mobile Firefox UX designers started envisioning solutions for an interesting challenge: a Firefox browser that is optimized for tablet-specific use cases and takes full advantage of tablet form factor.

The team defined two main user experience goals as the first milestone of this project.

Questions.001 Questions.002

To quickly test our design hypothesis for these two goals, I came up with a 10-day sprint model (inspired by Google Venture’s 5-day sprint) for the mobile Firefox UX team. I prototyped a few HTML5 concepts (GIF version) using Hype and published them on usertesting.com to get initial feedback from Android users.

What we learned from the sprint testings:

  1. Desktop controls were familiar to participants and they adopted them quickly
  2. Visual affordance built expectations
  3. Preview of individual tabs was helpful for tab switching
  4. Tab groups met the needs of a small set of tablet users
  5. Onscreen controls required additional time to get familiar with

Based on what we have learned from design sprints[full report], I put together an interaction design proposal for this redesign[full presentation]. To help myself and the rest of the team understand the scope of this redesign, I divided the work into a few parts, from fundamental structure to detailed interactions. My teammate Anthony Lam has been working closely with me, focusing on the visual design of the new UI.

Design Solution

The new Firefox on tablet achieves a good balance between simplicity and power by offering a horizontal tab strip and a full-screen tab panel. Designed for both landscape and portrait use, the new interface takes full advantage of the screen space on tablet to deliver a delightful experience. Here are some of the highlights.

1. Your frequently used actions are one tap away

The new interface features a horizontal tab strip that surfaces your frequent browsing actions, such as switching tabs, opening a new tab, closing a tab.

Tablet Refresh Presentation.001

2. Big screen invites gestures and advanced features

A full-screen tab panel gives a better visual representation of your normal and private browsing sessions. Taking advantage of the big space, the panel can also be a foundation for more advanced options, such as tab groups, gestural actions for tabs.

Tablet Refresh Presentation.002

3. Make sense of the Web through enhanced search

The new tablet interface will offer a simple and convenient search experience. The enhanced search overlay is powered by search history, search suggestions, your browsing history and bookmarks. You will be able to add search engines of your choice and surface them on the search result overlay.

Tablet Refresh Presentation.003

4. You have control over privacy as always

Private browsing allows you to browse the Internet without saving any information about which sites and pages you’ve visited.

Tablet Refresh Presentation.004.png.001

Future concepts

Besides basic tab structure and interactions, I have also experimented with some gestural actions for tabs. You can view some animations of those experiments via this link. I also included a list below with links to Bugzilla. If there is a concept that sounds interesting to you, feel free to post your thoughts and help us make it happen!

  • Add a new tab by long-tapping on the empty space of horizontal tab strip [Bug 1015467]
  • Pin a tab on horizontal tab strip [Bug 1018481]
  • Visual previews for horizontal tabs [Bug 1018493]
  • Blur effect for private tab thumbnails [Bug 1018456]


The big picture

Many of the highlighted features above, such as enhanced search, gestural shortcuts, can be adopted by Firefox Android on phone. And you may have noticed the new interface was heavily influenced by the simple and beautiful new look of Firefox on desktop.

Based on screen-sizes, tablet is a perfect platform for merging consistency in between desktop and phone. Focusing on the context of tablet use, Firefox Android on tablet will establish itself as a standalone product of the Firefox family. We are excited to see a re-imagined tablet experience make Firefox feel more like one product — more Firefoxy — across all our platforms, desktop to tablet to phone.

Tablet Refresh Presentation.005


Currently the mobile Firefox team is busy bringing those ideas to life. You can check out our progress by downloading Firefox Nightly build to your Android tablet and choose “Enable new tablet UI” in the Settings. And stay tuned for more awesomeness about this project from Anthony Lam, Lucas Rocha, Martyn Haigh, and Michael Comella!