Is visual navigation ahead for Firefox?

The release of Firefox 3 has happened, and there was much rejoicing. And now, our sights are set for Firefox 3.1 and beyond.

As I wrote in a previous post, a lot of people’s sights are on better ways to incorporate visual navigation into Firefox (see posts from Madhava, Aza, Bryan, and Andy.)

Some ways of incorporating visual navigation are relatively minor and would actually bring more consistency to the Firefox interface, allowing the same navigation for tabs as already exist for bookmarks and tags. Two of these are:

  1. Awesomebar results giving indication if an item is already opened in a tab (see Madhava’s post )
  2. Tabs shown in the sidebar, and thus easily scanned, deleted en masse, and grouped by characteristics such as domain and frequency of visit

Another quick way to add visual navigation to content is to expand tooltips to include information such as thumbnails.

These changes are fairly basic and nondisruptive to the current workflow. However, more substantial ways of browsing content could pay off in increased efficiency online.

In brainstorming what some of these could be, I thought about the drawbacks of the current system of tabbed browsing. One problem is that tabs are displayed linearly, while the tasks they contain can be sprawling and nonlinear. In the following sketch, the user is visiting five domains, but the tab structure gives no visual indication of the link between the tabs other than the favicon and title:

Being able to group open tabs by domain is one way to address this problem. In the following sketch, based on an idea by Jay Sullivan, the user clicks and holds down a tab. This produces a drop-down menu which shows all tabs open for that domain. This interaction mirrors the operating system method of seeing all windows open for a particular application in that application’s menu.

Another way to bring visual navigation to Firefox would be to expand the metaphor of the desktop and bring its interactions into the browser. The current Firefox library is similar to an OS file directory, but with none of the visual navigation that OSes do well. Allowing the user to navigate their library visually would draw on a familiar metaphor, give visual navigation only when needed, and perhaps ease users into the browser and desktop beginning to merge. Certainly one could imagine dragging a “file” from the Firefox library onto the desktop, turning the item into a web application.

As always, more details are in the wiki and comments are very welcome!

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  1. Jigar Shah says:

    I think you should leave these to Addon. Because simplicity will be always a winner. You might bundle addon it with FF.

  2. monk.e.boy says:


    You click on a button, then all the tabs sort of float into the middle of the screen, then organise them selves into a mindmap. Grouped by tag, domain, stuff like that.

    Or get rid of the tabs and just use a timeline of the pages. Let the user re-order them as they like. Drag a box round them to group them etc.


  3. Gordon P. Hemsley says:

    I like all of these concepts, including those mentioned only on the wiki page, except for one: I don’t think it’s a good idea to change any of the navigation to mimic a desktop or OS. I personally don’t like that type of navigation (I prefer all of my OSes to use lists, rather than icon thumbnails), so I think that should remain the same. However, like I said, everything else looks to be quite useful. Good thinking!

  4. Excellent stuff and mockups. But I must disagree that this is nondisruptive – while it would make sense to me, I can tell for a fact that someone like my wife or mom using Firefox with this sort of tabbed browsing would be confused as hell on where their tabs went after they opened it. Firefox is already a little confusing for both of them (aka general mass). And the blame rests not on Firefox which is actually simplifying things – making them as they should be – but on human nature that does not like too many changes to get basic work done.

  5. jboriss says:

    Jigar Shah –

    It’s definitely possible that some of these are left as addons. And that’s the beauty of Firefox – if you want an interaction that isn’t widely popular, you can write it yourself. However, I do think the very best interactions in addons are the kind of features that may belong in the browser itself. Some of Firefox’s best features began as popular addons, in fact – the addon community is a great way to gauge what features users want.

    monk.e.boy –

    I was going to say I addressed these in a previous post, but you posted there too. I guess you liked the idea? 🙂

    Gordon P. Hemsley –

    Though an important difference between tabs and your filesystem is that unless your files are images, a thumbnail of the document would not always be useful. My thought here is that knowing what a page looks like without knowing its title may be very common in browsing more than in an OS. This is because in browsing, tabs are often opened to be read later, so they have not been read yet but may only have been glanced at. Bryan goes more into detail about this.

    Ganeshram Iyer –

    Which prototype are you referring to as being potentially confusing? Maybe the OS filesystem one? I imagined this as being a separate window from tabs rather than taking their place on screen, so that the original tabbed system would still be visible.

  6. Gene Culling says:

    I have to say one I really dislike having “Groups”/”Group By …” or at least the way it is implemented in Windows. Tabs solved this for web browsing but I don’t know that it would work too well if you have to dig though several layers of tabs to get what you want.

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