The Usability of Closing Firefox Tabs

If you’ve used Firefox as a browser for a while, you’re probably used to the tabs that allow you to switch back and forth between pages without opening or viewing another instance, or window, of the browser being open. If you’ve been using Firefox for a while, you may have noticed at some point, that the way of closing those tabs had changed.

A usability test by a group of researchers, one from Google and two from NASA Ames, were consulted with by Mozilla and showed that new users of Firefox had problems understanding how tabbed browsing worked, and didn’t understand that they could close tabs by clicking on the “x” in the top right corner of the page.

A paper prepared by those researchers for this years CHI 07 Conference, When Two Methods are Better Than One: Combining user study with cognitive modeling (pdf), describes some of the user interface enhancements explored to make it easier for people to learn how to easily use tabs.

One of the methods explored was to put an “x” on each tab, and the team doing the research used a combination of cognitive modeling (using computer programs that simulate human performance of cognitive skills) and user testing to explore how well that change might work.

Cognitve modeling is an approach that might give you a sense of how an expert user will use a certain interface, and one of the links in the reference section of the paper points to the Carnegie Mellon University pages on The CogTool Project. The CogTool 1.0b18 User Guide (pdf) provides a detailed look at how the software works.

Since the tool focuses upon experienced users, performing usability tests with novice users makes a lot of sense. The paper does a nice job of showing how using modeling software combined with usability testing covering areas that the modeling software might not cover well alone.

Alex Faaborg, who is a user experience designer presently working on Firefox 3, attended the CHI 07 conference, and he provides some of his thoughts on this paper, and others involving Firefox and browser user interfaces at the conference.

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