|Note: these musings are somewhat orthogonal to the recent dialogue at humanized.com on tab overflow. For the record, I adjust the minWidth preference to be much smaller than the default whenever I create a new profile. If you’re actively following the overflow discussion and prototyping, this post focuses on a different framing/subset of the problem.|
I keep an eye on the mozdev project flow (rss available) and recently discovered the clever tab cloud extension. It aims to summarize the tabs with a “weighted list”, aka tag or keyword cloud and offers an affordance for tab selection. The extension’s still in development, and bootstraps with the Yahoo webservice for lexical analysis.
It’s a very interesting idea and one that made me revisit the dialogue from the Mozilla Labs introduction of chroma tabs, a color coding extension for tabs basing color on hostname. One commenter suggested color coding tabs by category. While this is highly doable by a fairly standard technique of using the DMOZ open directory content & categories to create a lexical profile, keyword summarization techniques might offer a more nuanced way of identifying content similarity. For the most part, I think browsing sequence is a more useful way to optimize tabs for efficient and accurate selection by mapped, small real estate visual cues like tab coloring.
Coding tabs by navigation sequence
With firefox 3 and the introduction of a history mechanism that more directly represents referring page load, and separates referred page loads from explicitly triggered (url bar, bookmarks, etc), we now have a mechanism to easily identify a browsing sequence across tabs. What I’m imagining is that spawned tabs, say from a google search session and derived trails would share a hue, varying in intensity as the distance (in page loads) increases from an explicitly triggered view.
Two commenters on the chromaTab labs post express similar ideas: one argues for commonly coding across referrer while another captures the referral chain idea with a focus on limiting coloration to behaviorally identified hubs.
What task should be supported?
There’s a very smart bit of code behind chromatabs: a hash system that insures that a domain will be assigned the same color from one session to another. This optimizes for learning of frequently visited site color patterns, potentially helping identification of less frequently visited domains as well.
I’m not sure about a number of dimensions that dictate the value of optimizing for long term learnability versus short termed cues. Empirical studies tell us that around 50% of all page views are revisits, which is no help at all! The more useful datapoint would be where to people make the most tab selection errors — for exploratory activities on new content or habitual information gathering activities, like reading CNN or browsing from TechMeme.
Folks at Mozilla are hard at work on an instrumentation framework which could be deployed to answer this question. By correlating tab selection errors (rapid switch-aways) to visit count and perhaps attributes of the referrer chain, patterns of errors might be identified. It may take a little while to get to that level in the metrics project, but Firefox has the luxury of huge numbers of insightful users who participate in the dialog as an alternative data source. Inviting users to chime in when they experience errors or challenges could increase the rate of learning.
Turning to other methods for making tabs more navigable, I’ve been surprised at how much I like the Flock behavior of opening new tabs adjacent to the spawning tab. This was very disorienting when I began using the new 1.0, but now I find myself somewhat annoyed at the mouse distance required for common new tab scenarios.
Supporting user optimization
If you can’t prevent user error (commandment #5), enable easy recovery (commandment #9). This is where tab preview systems like foxPose or TabCloud come in. For the user who’s lost context by stepping away from the computer or reading email, or for the browser out of control with diverse topics, going directly to an overview is a strategy that users can easily manage against the strength of their recollection by favicon & title.
There are challenges here with foxPose style visual thumbnails: multiple pages from similar sites may not be very visually different, designs may not be distinctive, or for a new site, the design may have made minimal memory impact. A really well done tabCloud approach could produce a high reliability recollection trigger. My bet is that single page representation mechanisms can’t rival representations of the temporal history of the tab and their spawn. Browsing icons is the definitive work in this space and customized graph layout for the common structures of hypertextual sequences. This could be deployed in the context reinstatement use case, ala foxPose, though the mapping to tabs would require some serious cogitation.
Age as a memorable dimension of tabs
A final, novel (UPDATE: Not!) contribution to the potential techniques for marking tags, is applying the notion of aging or wear & tear, to distinguish the age of tabs. Imagine fresh tabs as immaculate color fills with age introducing cracks and scratches. Combined with the color theming of referrer sequence, this make for a garish but highly informative tab bar.