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:

  • With sortable dates: click ‘last updat­ed’ and look at the top of the list.
  • With­out sortable dates: dou­ble click an addon on the list and find the ‘last updat­ed’ field. This will be be in a dif­fer­ent screen posi­tion depend­ing on the descrip­tive text sup­plied by the addon author. Is the update date the clos­est to now that you’ve found so far? Repeat until you’ve checked all addons.

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

January 2, 2011

Questions to the Firefox 4 UI team (FFb8)

Oblig­a­tory descrip­tion of com­plainant: web user since 1994, Mozil­la user since the Mozil­la Suite point releas­es and before that Netscape 1+, web devel­op­er of 15 years, cur­rent­ly teach­ing web tech skills, pro­gram­ming and visu­al design. Not a noob to UI design (his­to­ry in desk­top app dev) and typ­i­cal­ly an advo­cate of minimalism.

  1. Why did you remove the sta­tus bar to recov­er ver­ti­cal space then imme­di­ate­ly replace it with a taller addon bar miss­ing the absolute­ly crit­i­cal fea­ture of show­ing the link tar­get? Jen­ny Boriss’ post on this con­tains some extreme­ly flim­sy ratio­nale for a change that affects hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple who’ve been look­ing in the sta­tus bar link tar­get for 15+ years. At the absolute min­i­mum, include a ‘link tar­get’ drag­gable in the Cus­tomise Tool­bar box that can be placed on the left side of the addon bar. Also see this peti­tion to bring it back.
  2. WTF did you do to the JS alert() and prompt() dialogs? Why aren’t they plat­form dialogs any more? Is this a hack around the app-modal prob­lem? They’re intense­ly ugly on WinXP at least and just look like part of the page. You may think that’s a good thing, but I cer­tain­ly don’t.
  3. Why does the addon bar have a close but­ton, yet no oth­er tool­bars do? Why is there no option to remove it? Drag­ging it off like any oth­er fea­ture does­n’t do any­thing. I love hav­ing to resort to user­chrome hacks. 
  4. Nev­er auto-com­bine but­tons on the menu bar (Stop and Refresh) accord­ing to some arbi­trary rule that the user does­n’t know. The tool­bar edi­tor is intend­ed to be as close to WYSIWYG as pos­si­ble, and any changes should have clear rea­son­ing or ratio­nale. BTW, why do the Refresh & Stop but­tons com­bine when placed in that order, and not Stop + Refresh? This is how I’m work­ing around the auto-com­bine at the moment. 
  5. The entire — and I’m not kid­ding — addons man­ag­er is hor­ri­ble. Unlike almost every­thing else that’s part of the brows­er itself, it’s eschews the stan­dard plat­form UI feel and colours for some web­page mish­mash. To be specific:
    • The whole design feels flat. Medi­um grey text on light grey back­ground with light grey blue lines. Sub­tle grey cross­hatch­ing all over the place makes it look dirty.
    • Is is much too wide on a decent screen. One of the ben­e­fits to the old addon man­ag­er, although it’s obvi­ous that you did­n’t see it this way, was that the addons man­ag­er was inde­pen­dent of the brows­er win­dow’s size. There was nev­er a need to max­imise the addon man­ag­er, because it was just a sim­ple list with a cou­ple of but­tons that lead to a modal dia­log box or a link. Addons don’t need 1650 pix­els to dis­play two sen­tences of information.
    • As a side effect of mak­ing the man­ag­er so large, now it’s total­ly bloody over­whelm­ing on load (Jesus, just used the new prompt() again to insert that link. The text box is too small and it feels total­ly wrong.) You’re show­ing too much on a nor­mal desk­top screen, so for a user like myself with ~35 addons the list can’t be scanned or parsed. You’ve suc­cess­ful­ly turned a sim­ple list into a mega full-screen appli­ca­tion that’s too visu­al­ly large to con­cep­tu­alise as a list and now it’s scary to work with.
    • The addon list feels like it has arbi­trary back­grounds assigned to each addon; it’s not clear from a glace what’s dis­abled, what’s bro­ken, what’s work­ing, or what’s just been updat­ed because of the sim­i­lar­i­ty of each. Also, diag­o­nal lines are always a bad idea for sit­ting behind text, even if they’re sub­tle. I believe you’re bet­ter off break­ing this list into two, pos­si­bly three: enabled, dis­abled and bro­ken. The list will be much more read­able and scannable at a glance.
    • Warn­ing or infor­ma­tion mes­sages for each addon are hard to read due to colour and shad­ow effects and hard to scan because they’re bad­ly placed. This is an exten­sion to the prob­lem above. Can you find a bet­ter, more ver­ti­cal­ly scannable place for this if the oth­er issues aren’t fixed?
    • I don’t believe we gained any­thing by inte­grat­ing the Addons web­site into the man­ag­er. Click­ing an addon opens anoth­er tab any­way, so it’s just an arbi­trary step­ping-stone por­tal/s­tart-page. You’re still installing addons via an app-modal pop­up which can some­times take 10 sec­onds to appear while the brows­er lets me click around and change tabs (that in par­tic­u­lar has con­fused me many times, some­times mak­ing me think the click has­n’t reg­is­tered, and I’m an advanced user for christ’s sake).
    • Non ques­tion: while the UI team is focussed on reduc­ing brows­er chrome, it’s wast­ing huge amounts of screen on white­space in the addons man­ag­er. Take a look at the screen­shot linked above. Under­neath the fake “tabs”: huge waste of space. The entire search bar (which is also prac­ti­cal­ly invis­i­ble up there): huge waste of space. Each addon in the list: crim­i­nal waste of both ver­ti­cal and hor­i­zon­tal space. Yes, I under­stand and respect the use of white­space. I believe the addon man­ag­er is over­do­ing it though.
    • So much effort has been put into get­ting tabs against the top edge of the screen in order to ben­e­fit from Fit­t’s Law or some deriva­tion there­of but inex­plic­a­bly the addon list scroll­bar isn’t against the edge of the screen. Why? When did you last see a full-page scrolling list inset from the side of the screen?
    • Why is the addon man­ag­er a nor­mal tab instead of being an app tab? This results in it get­ting lost with­in oth­er tabs, like it’s some ran­dom web site instead of being a brows­er con­fig­u­ra­tion win­dow.
  6. Why do addon icons auto­mat­i­cal­ly inher­it a but­ton-like bor­der? I thought we were going for min­i­mal­ist, and this cer­tain­ly isn’t.
  7. In one recent Test Pilot study you found that many peo­ple have large amounts of tabs open. Widescreen is becom­ing the dom­i­nant screen ratio. Why was­n’t a ver­ti­cal tab list option devel­oped to com­pen­sate? You’ve just pissed a lot of peo­ple off by remov­ing 23 pix­els of sta­tus bar, imple­ment­ing tabs-on-top by default and (worse) draw­ing app con­tents in the OS-reserved title bar but there’s no option for ver­ti­cal tabs that would restore space tak­en by chrome? I would have thought this would be a top pri­or­i­ty. Ide­al­ly, Fire­fox would watch the num­ber of tabs the user has over a few ses­sions and offer to demon­strate the ver­ti­cal tab align­ment with an easy way to switch it back.
  8. Why does the book­marks bar auto­mat­i­cal­ly turn off when upgrad­ing from 3.6 if a user has stuff there? I have com­mon sets of pages in fold­ers up there, as does my part­ner, my moth­er, my sis­ter, and many tech­ni­cal­ly-mind­ed peo­ple I work with. The only rea­son I can imag­ine for this is to futher reduce ver­ti­cal chrome, but annoyed users will just turn it back on again any­way! And if I did­n’t know how to turn it back on, well, I’d be real­ly frus­trat­ed at hav­ing lost all that stuff.
  9. Aside: Fire­fox Sync is a nice idea, but I would­n’t have a clue what it does if I was­n’t a Mozil­lian. The Set Up Sync option gives no details what­so­ev­er. Where you do explain it, make sure to pimp the “encrypt­ed, and even Mozil­la can’t read it” side, because I see that as a big sell­ing point over any solu­tion that Google or MS may pro­vide in the future.

Edit 1:44am: fixed incom­plete sen­tence; killed sil­ly exag­ger­a­tion, rephrased some state­ments into ques­tions and cor­rect­ed Jen­ny Boriss’ name.

posted by Andrew

December 6, 2010

A Quick Guide to Ineffectively Downplaying Wikileaks

Robert Gibbs, US Pres­i­den­tial Press Secretary:

We should nev­er be afraid of one guy who plopped down $35 and bought a web address. … Let’s not be scared of one guy with a laptop. 

Julian Assange, in the Guardian Q&A:

The Cable Gate archive has been spread, along with sig­nif­i­cant mate­r­i­al from the US and oth­er coun­tries to over 100,000 peo­ple in encrypt­ed form. If some­thing hap­pens to us, the key parts will be released auto­mat­i­cal­ly. Fur­ther, the Cable Gate archives is in the hands of mul­ti­ple news organisations. […] 

The basic prob­lem with Gib­b’s assess­ment, along with Lieber­man’s, is that they don’t under­stand the tech­nol­o­gy or the infra­struc­ture involved in the Wik­ileaks effort. These are not dumb peo­ple eas­i­ly swat­ted with a sin­gle favour from a US host­ing ser­vice or polit­i­cal con­nec­tion at ICANN. Any gov­ern­ment brava­do in this sit­u­a­tion is at best pre­tence. And as for under­ly­ing mes­sage in Gib­b’s state­ment — that we have noth­ing to fear — who said we do in the first place?

posted by Andrew

December 2, 2010

Join Domino’s Ideas Lab, become a serf

Today I received an invite to join Domi­no’s new media ven­ture, the Ideas Lab, a place where you can sell your poten­tial­ly lucra­tive ideas for noth­ing but exten­sive media exploita­tion by a multi­na­tion­al piz­za brand for infin­i­ty time + 1. From their scary Terms and Conditions:

Except as express­ly pro­vid­ed oth­er­wise in the Pri­va­cy Pol­i­cy, you agree that by post­ing mes­sages, upload­ing files, inputting data, or engag­ing in any oth­er form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with or through the Web­site, you grant us a roy­al­ty-free, per­pet­u­al, non-exclu­sive, unre­strict­ed, world­wide license […] 


[…] to use, repro­duce, mod­i­fy, adapt, trans­late, enhance, trans­mit, dis­trib­ute, pub­licly per­form, dis­play, or sub­li­cense any such com­mu­ni­ca­tion (includ­ing your iden­ti­ty and infor­ma­tion about you) […] 


[…] in any medi­um (now in exis­tence or here­inafter devel­oped) and for any pur­pose, includ­ing com­mer­cial pur­pos­es, and to autho­rize oth­ers to do so.

Holy shit! All this so I can give free ideas to a multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tion and (pos­si­bly) win a $100 gift vouch­er! Count me in, guys!

(Yo, seri­ous­ly, don’t sign up for stuff like this.)

posted by Andrew

November 30, 2010

From an interview with Assange

Wik­iLeaks means it’s eas­i­er to run a good busi­ness and hard­er to run a bad busi­ness, and all CEOs should be encour­aged by this. I think about the case in Chi­na where milk pow­der com­pa­nies start­ed cut­ting the pro­tein in milk pow­der with plas­tics. That hap­pened at a num­ber of sep­a­rate manufacturers.

Let’s say you want to run a good com­pa­ny. It’s nice to have an eth­i­cal work­place. Your employ­ees are much less like­ly to screw you over if they’re not screw­ing oth­er peo­ple over.

Then one com­pa­ny starts cut­ting their milk pow­der with melamine, and becomes more prof­itable. You can fol­low suit, or slow­ly go bank­rupt and the one that’s cut­ting its milk pow­der will take you over. That’s the worst of all pos­si­ble outcomes.

The oth­er pos­si­bil­i­ty is that the first one to cut its milk pow­der is exposed. Then you don’t have to cut your milk pow­der. There’s a threat of reg­u­la­tion that pro­duces self-regulation.

It just means that it’s eas­i­er for hon­est CEOs to run an hon­est busi­ness, if the dis­hon­est busi­ness­es are more effect­ed neg­a­tive­ly by leaks than hon­est busi­ness­es. That’s the whole idea. In the strug­gle between open and hon­est com­pa­nies and dis­hon­est and closed com­pa­nies, we’re cre­at­ing a tremen­dous rep­u­ta­tion­al tax on the uneth­i­cal companies. 

Source: An inter­view with Wik­ileaks’ Julian Assange (Forbes.com)

posted by Andrew

November 29, 2010

Shutting down Wikileaks pretty simple, apparently

My all-time favourite US Sen­a­tor Joseph Lieber­man (he who doth protest video gam­ing) makes an amus­ing call to shut Wik­ileaks down. Oh man, for the chair­man of the Sen­ate Home­land Secu­ri­ty Com­mit­tee you sure don’t have a clue about the “ene­my” you’re engag­ing here.

posted by Andrew