Research Spinning Up on New Tab Page

Whenever you open a new tab in Firefox, your goal is to navigate somewhere.  To aid your navigation, on this new tab Firefox currently offers you… nothing.  Just a blank page.  100% white, and 100% not useful.

Firefox has been displaying this blank page when users open a new tab for as long as there’s been a new tab.  And, partially, it’s deliberate.  After all, a blank page is guaranteed not to distract you from your current task.  It’s just clean and white, like a canvas, offering no suggestions for the next move and no distractions from it.  Alex Faaborg explains very well in his recent blog post the concerns we have with distracting users and the ways that data overload on a new tab page can be harmful.

This isn’t the case when you open a new tab in other browsers.  Opera was the first to offer a “Speed Dial” with giant thumbnails linking users to their most frequented sites.  Safari’s giant wall-o-televisions offers much the same.  Chrome has played around with different designs, first trying a speed dial like Opera’s and later integrating other content, such as apps.  Internet Explorer, the most unusual of the designs, offers you some options: reopen closed tabs and sessions, start private browsing, or use an “Accelerator,” which usually means do “something with Bing.”

What happens when you open a new tab in different browsers

So, which approach is best for our users?  Would presenting large thumbnail targets to direct people to sites they frequently visit save them time?  Could we present information to make it easier for users to navigate to their next destination?  Can we do so without being distracting and leading users away from the task they had in mind?

We realized that we couldn’t answer these questions without finding out more about our users.  So, a few people at Mozilla are heading up studies to find out how people use tabs and how different designs of new tab page effect how they browse and user the web.

Here’s what’s going down:

1. Quantitative study through Test Pilot on what users do after opening a new tab

Intern Lilian Weng is currently working on a quantitative study within Test Pilot to capture data on what users do after they open a new tab.  This should answer questions surrounding user intention when opening a new tab, and possibly how long users take to perform actions after opening a new tab.

2. A/B test of a new tab page vs. blank new tab

Interns Diyang Tang and Lilian Weng are preparing to do an A/B test using Test Pilot to determine how user behavior differs when presented with a new tab page vs. none.  They are attempting to answer questions such as:

– Does a new tab page slow users down (e.g., by distracting them), or speed them up (e.g., help them find the target site faster)?
– Does a new tab page discourage breadth in visited sites?
– How do users navigate to a website after they open a new tab in each scenario? (location bar, search bar, top sites, bookmarks, history, etc.)
– Are there users who are more mouse-based and some who are more keyboard-based? How does a new tab page affect them?

3. Cafe testing for current Firefox

Diane Loviglio and myself are preparing more qualitative “cafe” tests to gain insight into how people use tabs currently.  We’d like to know why and when users open new tabs in a more contextual perspective than Test Pilot data provides.  Our goal is to find a wide enough range of users that the most common new tab behaviors can be grouped and discussed in a more tractable framework.

4. Testing multiple new tab page designs

Once the research from tests 1-3 is available, variations on new tab pages will be implemented and tried out with real users.  There are multiple testing methods that could be useful here, such as a multivariate testing or even journaling to gain insight into how new tab pages effect behavior of a user over time.

5. Creating a contextual speel dial implementation

Not quite a research project, but intern Abhinav Sharma is designing and implementing an experimental new tab page which uses contextual information about a user’s current browsing session to offer suggestions.  His page makes intelligent recommendations about where you’re likely to go next based on where you’ve been.  The project’s still in alpha, but you can see the code he’s done already for a basic speed dial implementation on his github.

You’ll notice that a lot of this work is being done by our awesome new Summer 2011 interns!  It’s only early June and they’re already rocking hard.

I’ll post what we learn from these studies as results come in.  I predict we’ll gain some insight into user behavior that will inform not only Firefox’s new tab design, but many other features besides!


Chime in Leave a Comment

  1. x says:

    suers? I hope not 😛

  2. +1

    Personally, I don’t particularly use the info presented on a new blank tab because by the time the tab has finished rendering/animating, I’m already past my first key-stroke in typing the url I want to go to (or perform a search or whatever). Once in a while though, I do stop to go to a commonly used site but that’s only because I’m bored as **** and you may as well incorporate stumbleupon into the new tab for all I care at that point.. I rarely use the new tab to bring up previously closed tabs because I use the “reopen closed tab” menu option for that.

    Anecdotal evidence that you can use as you please.

  3. yamaban says:

    Give power to the user!

    Make the decision on what is shown in a new tab a ‘tab’ in the main configuration Dialog.

    How to test all the possibilities?
    – Pack them up into a Add-On for fx4+fx5!
    – integrate into fx6+nightly
    – give a hint (simple text) how to config / change ‘New Tab’ on ‘blank page’
    – but better let ‘blank page’ remain an option.

    Firefox already gives the user much more power on how (s)he wants his/her browsing experience than other browsers, why cut corners here?

    Kudos to the Interns, I see some nice things there, but want I this things in my new tab the whole time? I’m not so sure about.

    PS: Why not add a keyboard-shortcut / icon for ‘Blank’ – new-tab?

  4. I’m not sure you actually wanted feedback in your blog comments, but…

    Personally, pretty much all the time I’m opening a new blank tab, it’s because I’m going to type or paste a URL into it.

    If I’m opening a tab because I’m just looking for something to do, or because I want to go to one of my frequently-visited sites, I tend to middle click the home button to bring up a tab with my iGoogle page (which has bookmarks of frequently visited sites, along with news and weather and stuff).

  5. Lukas Blakk says:

    This is so cool. I love how you presented this project and look forward to all the various feedback that will help shape what we’ll try in future iterations of Firefox. I don’t even know how to tell if I’d be sped up or slowed down by a dialer or something else – I suppose that most often I open a new tab and then go to the awesome bar to load a page I frequent so if there was a way to choose what that new tab would display by some kind of a shortcut so I could either open a blank tab or a selector page (maybe I could even create a couple of tag-based ones like “work” or “blogs”)…oh the possibilities!

  6. Brian King says:

    I suspect the New tab->Location bar->Type/Paste something is a techie flow. For the regular Net user, they like something to aim at. As an anecdote, my mother-in-law likes the Chrome thumbnails.

  7. As a note, I have created a local page (actually served from a local-to-my-computer web server) with a number of static links and a number of dynamically adapted links (mostly date-based) and I’m using that as my new-tab page.
    What’s important to me there is that things I need more or less frequently are in known places and grouped to my personal logic. I also have an iframe there that shows me my current calendar for the next few days.
    If I could have all that on a default-in-the-browser new tab page, I’d customize and use that instead.

  8. Mike Beltzner says:

    I am hot like fire for the adaptive new tab page. I really do need to mock my thoughts up (or find me on IRC, or talk to Margaret and Gavin who got my spiel a while ago) to contribute …

    Great post, Boriss!

  9. deadsquid says:


    How do we address the addons that have already shimmed something like this into the product (many toolbars, including Google, Comcast, Skype, Ubufox, and others)? In a lot of cases other orgs have already provided something that we have not (and in most cases in ways that benefit themselves, not the users). As we go through this, it’d be great if we could also include what other orgs have done, and determine how we ensure users are given options.

  10. Brian says:

    Perhaps you should consider how the New Tab is called. If I’m Ctrl-T’ing, you can bet I don’t give a crap about what shows up, I just want about:blank.

    If I’m lazing about and actually bother to click the [+] button (provided I haven’t removed it in userChrome.css) then I might well be interested in clicking straight onto reddit or whatever.

  11. paulo333 says:

    Hello. I would say the best “answer” is what IE9 does: the user can choose what a new tab should display (via the browser settings): homepage, most visited websites, private browsing etc…

  12. Dan says:

    As long as it’s speedy (which IE’s new tab page isn’t) and not too distracting (so I forget why I actually opened a new tab) then I’ll be happy. Glad to see that this will be well researched before settling on anything.

  13. voracity says:

    Won’t the home tab resolve these issues? And without having to change the new tab behaviour?

    – I know the address of where I want to go
    —> New Tab
    – I know some concepts/keywords related to where I want to go
    —> New Tab (and then History Search or Web Search)

    – I want to go somewhere I go every day
    —> Home Tab/App Tab
    – I want to go somewhere but I don’t know where
    —> Home Tab*

    Things can get complicated if you use your browser in a way that mixes (e.g.) work and personal, but distracting people on the New Tab page will only make that particular problem worse.

    Basically, I’m suggesting the Home Tab should be implemented and some in-the-field usability research done on how people might use that before tinkering with New Tab.

    * The Home Tab could do something along the lines of StumbleUpon or Like.FM.

  14. Rijk says:

    The IE screenshot is from IE8, IE9 does something more elegant.

    In Opera you don’t get the ‘most visited sites’ as the blog post here says, but the ‘most wanted sites’, because the user adds them himself. This as opposed to Chrome, Safari and IE, where the used can at most manually remove some embarrassing sites from the collection.

  15. Kenny says:

    Whatever you do, please leave us an option to keep the new tab page blank. It’s essential.

  16. David Ross says:

    If I merely open a new tab (not by selecting a link to be opened in a new tab), I want my home page to appear. My home page is an HTML export of my bookmarks. I open a new tab in this case so that I can then select a bookmarked link.

    No, I don’t want to return to my home page in my current tab. And I certainly don’t want to have to return to my home page in the new tab; my home page should be there.

  17. Dillon says:

    The description of Opera’s new tab page is inaccurate. It doesn’t display the most frequently accessed sites but the sites that the user chooses to place in the “speed dial”.

  18. EuroSkept1C says:

    Dillion is right. There is a major difference.

    I’d really like to give us exactly the same option. Is the best in my opinion.

    Also, Opera’s approach on hiding the “useless” parts of the address bar, is also the best. Opera is not only hides the useless part of the address at the beginning… but, at the end too, which usually is the longest. Pressing on Address-bar the entire link appears.

    Do it correctly!

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