May 1, 2014

My favourite Firefox UI change justifications

It’s Australis time! Let the justifications for auto-updating your user interface to something completely different without warning begin!

We didn’t make the location/URL bar unmovable, we simply removed that ability from the default install of Firefox.

You can rearrange the nav & URL bar by adding items to the left of it in Customize mode. A bit hacky, but it works.

I’m not asking you to love it, but I hope you’ll play around with it and see if it can’t be a new home base for you. If it can’t, hey, try another browser.

There’s a lot of reasons we made the tabs curvier. One is that the modern web is becoming more fluid and organic and less boxy and robotic, and it’s (arguably) a Good Thing.

Interface designers (or whatever eye-rolling term the industry prefers to use these days), please be aware that we might not dislike the entire set of changes — some may actually be justified and qualify as a net improvement — but remember that you’ve been dogfooding these changes for months if not years, and many of those changes are purely subjective based on a relatively small circle of like-minded people. You have been subjected to gradual shift. Now the sum of those changes have been dumped on hundreds of millions of users without warning, and you expect people who have been using the product for longer than you’ve been a member of the Mozilla community to adapt or leave the product that again, they’ve been using for longer than you have.

A slow gradual shift in UI design can be halted and reversed where necessary. This is the basis for iterative change and improvement. An instantaneous, monolithic change is so much easier to justify keeping because we spent so much time and money on this and undoing it would be really hard now.

I believe the many commenters on this long-running issue — going all the way back to the strange, demonstrably illogical, pattern-breaking mess that was Firefox 4 — are right in saying that the Firefox UI team’s influence to change significant amounts of the interface without restraint should be curtailed. No other team has as much power to affect the public’s perception of the browser. None. The technical team may introduce WebRTC or another more controversial web-facing feature, but that is constrained, has little to no effect on other features, is easily ignored, and most likely can be disabled if necessary. Large-scale UI changes cannot be disabled or easily reverted, are not constrained, demonstrably break addons and existing usage patterns, and disable or remove long-term user-facing features (such as the ability to move the address bar or back/forward buttons).

When I was testing Win32 webkit nightly builds I could switch the web engine behind the scenes without affecting the UI. Give me that and you can let your UI designers go wild. My UI is clean, organised how I like, keyboard accessible, fast, and my addons work exactly as I like. I don’t need curved tabs because the web is increasingly fluid and organic.

There is a certain irony in being told that simple features of the interface are being removed because they’re better provided by an addon, but then a monolithic, significantly different UI design isn’t packaged as an addon (what happened to “complete themes”?).

posted by Andrew