January 31, 2011

Removing the ‘last updated’ text from Firefox 4’s addon manager

Jen­ny Boriss writes:

The intend­ed pur­pose of the add-on manager’s list view is to give a brief overview of the users’ add-ons and to pro­vide only the min­i­mal, most used infor­ma­tion and functionality.

I don’t think a small chunk of text on each addon entry is caus­ing the man­ag­er to be aes­thet­i­cal­ly busy. The absurd amount of white­space and con­fus­ing visu­al struc­ture is actu­al­ly respon­si­ble for that.

Some addi­tion­al com­ments about the addon man­ag­er inter­face can be found in a pre­vi­ous post about the Fire­fox 4 UI.

Some advanced users use the last updat­ed date as a diag­nos­tic tool to iden­ti­fy which add-on updates may be caus­ing a recent prob­lem in Fire­fox. How­ev­er, the date makes a very poor diag­nos­tic tool. One rea­son is that the date does not give any infor­ma­tion about the size nor scope of the update, and thus can only be used for diag­no­sis by dis­abling one add-on at a time to iso­late a prob­lem. In many cas­es, a prob­lem in Fire­fox caused by an add-on are instant­ly iden­ti­fi­able as being caused by a par­tic­u­lar add-on.

This has not been my expe­ri­ence. Dis­abling the last updat­ed addon has been a suc­cess­ful tech­nique for me in at least two cas­es. For exam­ple, towards the end of last year half of my tabs dis­ap­peared with one mid­dle-click. I have a few tab-relat­ed addons installed so a few were sus­pect. Luck­i­ly I remem­bered which one had updat­ed last (around week pri­or to the bug sur­fac­ing so dra­mat­i­cal­ly) so I down­grad­ed the Tree-style Tabs addon and things went back to nor­mal. This is a case where sort­ing by last update date is very use­ful. (Or maybe it’s because I’m an advanced user who can tie his own shoelaces with­out a video demon­stra­tion on Youtube).

What would be ide­al for sit­u­a­tions like this is for recent­ly-updat­ed addons to have a ‘down­grade’ or ‘down-date’ (for want of a bet­ter term) option avail­able to the user should some­thing appear wrong with the addon that can’t be explained through error logs or crash reports. This fea­ture also com­pen­sates for users who update an addon (or have it updat­ed auto­mat­i­cal­ly) only to dis­cov­er a key fea­ture that they used has been changed or removed.

Even in the rare case where a prob­lem sud­den­ly appears in Fire­fox, the chances of it being from an add-on update are not large. A prob­lem could be caused by any num­ber of online events, which is why Fire­fox pro­vides tools such as the Error Con­sole and about:crashes to help diag­nose them.

The con­sole out­put and about:crashes would not have helped for the case above as it was a log­ic error in the addon, not a syn­tax error.

And, even if we were to give fuller infor­ma­tion about updates in the add-ons man­ag­er and make it into a bet­ter diag­nos­tic tool, why should this tool be so far removed from oth­er diag­nos­tic tools? How could a new user fig­ure out that, to access diag­nos­tic tools relat­ed to add-ons, they should go to the add-ons man­ag­er rather than a more com­pre­hen­sive diag­nos­tic tool? It would be wild­ly inef­fi­cient to apply this else­where in Fire­fox by plac­ing diag­nos­tic tools only on the inter­face ele­ments they relate to.

No one asked for diag­nos­tic tools to be splayed through­out the inter­face, so I’m not sure where that came from. I cer­tain­ly don’t want the dash­board of my car look like a 747 cock­pit but I would like to be giv­en a hint about the oil lev­el since that changes over time while I’m not look­ing.

If I was a user with a few addons that affect say, tabs, and the tab bar start­ed act­ing funky, I’d think about what change could have caused it. Did I fid­dle with any set­tings? No. Did the brows­er update in the last week? No. Did those tab addons update? Hmm, I remem­ber see­ing some­thing about that. How do I check stuff about addons? Oh, the addon man­ag­er.

I think strip­ping out poten­tial­ly use­ful diag­nos­tic infor­ma­tion for pure­ly aes­thet­ic rea­sons is the wrong choice. Con­sid­er the dif­fer­ence in time and com­plex­i­ty if I want to find the most recent­ly updat­ed addon for the sce­nario above:

What we should do is add diag­nos­tic tools about add-ons to com­pre­hen­sive tools such as about:support. Then, we could pro­vide expert users the infor­ma­tion they want in a bet­ter for­mat while keep­ing one-off diag­no­sis away from list view in the add-ons manager.

Well, yeah, that’d be great. When is that sched­uled to be includ­ed? In the mean­time, however…

The intend­ed pur­pose of auto­mat­ic updates is to remove updat­ing from the list of items the user has to care about and remem­ber. By expos­ing the updat­ed date in list view, Fire­fox insin­u­ates both that the updat­ed date is very impor­tant that this is a process the user should manage.

Please don’t do that. You’re assum­ing that the addon review process is per­fect. If it was then the bro­ken Tree-style Tab update would­n’t have got­ten through and remained live for 2+ weeks.

I also dis­agree that show­ing an infor­ma­tion update date is insin­u­at­ing that the user is respon­si­ble for it. If Fire­fox suc­cess­ful­ly com­mu­ni­cates that addons are auto-updat­ed then you have noth­ing to wor­ry about.

Actu­al­ly, the actu­al rea­son sort­ing and the last updat­ed date were ini­tial­ly pro­posed in the add-ons man­ag­er design was to give users the abil­i­ty to sort their add-ons by per­for­mance, not updat­ed date. […] How­ev­er, the abil­i­ty to rank an add-on’s per­for­mance is going to be a part of FIre­fox after the 4.0 release, mak­ing the remain­ing sort­ing cat­e­gories (alpha­bet­ic and updat­ed date) much less useful.

Are you say­ing that sort­ing by name & date will be back when per­for­mance grad­ing is pos­si­ble? If so then this change and dis­cus­sion are a waste of time.

Edit: from the com­ments under­neath the article:

Pref­er­ences will be in detailed view also. So, it can be accessed by click­ing the name of an add-on once. It’s basi­cal­ly the same rea­son­ing – that this is func­tion­al­i­ty that isn’t basic, scannable, most used-enough for list view, but is per­fect for detail view. Detail view is essen­tial­ly for more com­plex inter­ac­tions with add-ons, while list-view is for over­all sum­ma­ry. Pref­er­ences is an exam­ple of a more com­plex interaction.

This sounds real­ly non-intu­itive and goes against the prin­ci­ple of least sur­prise.

posted by Andrew

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *