Lately I’ve been asking a lot of different people, “Why do you use tabs?”, in reference to tabbed web browsers.  I wanted to do some quick and dirty research on the design and usage behind tabs; some of this is obvious yet it helps to have it written out.

So here’s a bit of what I’ve found people claim to use tabs for.  I’ve arranged the information into what I felt were 4 distinct types of usage.  I’d love to hear about other usage that doesn’t fit into these categories or other categories people have observed.

Defer Action

Tabs for Defering

Often people want to defer an action until a later time.  In a web browser they will open a link in tab that they’d like to read a little bit later.  This was reported to occur on news or information sites where a person is reading a single page but wants to branch off to other links after reading.  After completing the tab in their current focus the person would begin processing the other tabs lined up for later.

Lightweight Bookmark

Similar to deferring an action, people mentioned that tabs were a way of keeping certain pages around for an indefinite period of time.  These pages weren’t necessarily going to be processed right away but they didn’t want to be lost.  When asked if they bookmarked these page people responded that these pages were transitive reference type pages (i.e. they needed them to continuously use them for a certain project) and so tabbing seemed to be a way to bookmark things in a lightweight fashion.  This especially made sense when tabs are saved within a session; people reported opening lots of tabs (hundreds) and then closing Firefox down completely only to reopen them all later.

Collect Related Information

Many people cited using tabs specifically to collect information on the same subject.  Often this kind of collection was research for a composition like a blog post.  Some people claimed to do this in a very formal fashion of opening up a fresh window for a blog post and then creating new tabs in that window for research related to the blog post.  While others referenced doing an important activity in one window and having a set of windows with tabs in them for researching ideas around that important activity.  This type of collection is similar to the lightweight bookmark except that most of the tabs were intended for a very finite period of time such as using the page to link to.

Switch Context and Keep Current State

Many people also talked about how they would “Adventure off” into other tabs to follow something that was either more important or more interesting but they really wanted to keep their exact place they were.  This  is very similar to the defer action, you could say this is the after state of the defer action.  The only difference here is that the person is intentionally keeping the first tab around in it’s exact state where the defer might lead to closing tabs as they are finished.  A common example was a quick interruption that called for searching for something unrelated to what they were doing.  People would open a new tab, complete their search and then close that tab to go back to what they were doing.

Some Related Links for you to open up in Tabs

What does this mean for Thunderbird?

This information isn’t for figuring out how tabs work in firefox and then squeezing that idea into thunderbird.  It is merely here to create a common language reference for talking about tabs and their usage.  Hopefully people could see new ideas on how tabs can be used from understanding how they are used in other contexts.  There currently exists an implementation of tabs in Thunderbird but it will not be the same as it is now by the 3.0 release.


18 thoughts on “Tabulation

  1. Nice description, although I always find it hard to break it down into discrete categories. But all in all it is a nice summary of how I use tabs in a browser:

    – to open a page (most likely related) to read after current page
    – to keep a page open to go back to it later, if needed

    – to do something in one page (e.g. write a blog post) and use other pages for reference
    – to do research and jump between pages to compare results

  2. Here are some use cases I have for tabs. They pretty much fit the topics you have above, but include their own sub-patterns of usage.

    1. Documentation browsing. When developing I’m usually gluing together multiple apis and environments. I’ll keep many tabs open when using web pages for reference documantation.

    2. Web administration. I use Django to work with several of my own sites. Usually I’ll have one tab opened to the front end and one tab on the back end. I’ll make administrative changes in one and view the results in the other.

  3. Interesting. Though it made me want a TB approach for use in a web browser. I tend to keep tabs open of things that I will ‘get around too’. Typically these can be blog/slashdot entries for reference. These tend to be pretty time/cycle consuming to open when the browser is restarted. Naturally they are, to some extent, sat using memory as well afterwards. I tend to have these over disparate sessions on different machines/environments. When I do get around to viewing the content I tend to refresh it anyway.
    Perhaps it is my disorganised nature that needs adjusting but I tend to use my Inbox the same way. Lots of messages that I do not need now but will need without any hunting in a moment. imap ‘summaries’ makes this nice and efficient and I think I could use something similar in a browser.
    I used to keep bookmarks in a folder called TEMP but they were out of sight and so consequently ‘out of mind’ and after a while became an unwieldy mess.
    I think I need a drop box of references instead (with previews or other visual indicator), and threaded into subject/time would be nice.
    Perhaps this is what the FF3 ‘smart’ bookmarks are for but if so I haven’t found how to maximise(?) my usage.
    Sorry, wandered of the subject a bit but… I think that FF et al can learn more from TB in this regard rather than the other way around 🙂

  4. Someone please show this article to the Epiphany developers so they can tell (tab) users they use the web wrong, again…

    Noone needs more than 640k, nor more than 2-3 tabs, after all.

  5. I would add to that “Lightweight Window Management”, click once and have all your browser windows minimized/maximized .

    And maybe “Comparative Research”: do a Google search (maybe for researching a purchase), open results in tabs and switch from one to another and compare the information.

    But the truth is, while I rely on tabs for all the above mentioned scenarios, I started because “Smaller Resource Consumption”, back in the pre-Mozilla 1.0 days (I switched to Mozilla Suite as a default browser around 0.9) when it absolutely sucked performance wise. So you *had* to use tabs to have it usable.
    Since then, the resource usage is not a problem any more, but in the meantime I got so attached of using tabs…

  6. I’d add one reason to use tabs that is probably a more basic or initial one. I think I first used tabs as a replacement to several windows considering it more convenient UI than taskbar.
    I cannot really say now if it was the more compact approach or the different look than the taskbar items, or just the intention of not mixing the windows (tabs) with the other apps present in taskbar. But I would say that the reasons presented in this post are somehow derived from this initial approach, as a “refined usage” or as “growing up” of this feature.

    I say that cause I rarely open msg in Tb in separate windows, which makes me kinda neutral to this reasons of using tabs in TB. (Still that seams the basic reason, similar to FFox for those using msg like that)

    I’d rather consider tabs in TB as
    -different views of the data (folders/msg/different searches/AB/calendar etc)
    -different views/panes/elements for the screen real estate issues (imagine collapsed pane presenting a tab for getting it back, intuitive UI ..)
    -detailing of related data,
    (meaning like in one [main] tab you get the folder/thread/msg pane, have a search and select the msg and other tabs may present related elements, view of the whole thread, view of the contacts etc, view of a graph representation of relations to that msg, highlight corresponding tab header when hover certain data etc. Ok, these seam already for another discussion ..)
    -tabs for contextual data, updated accordingly (in addition to above maybe ..)
    -other non modal panels, for extensions etc …

    [note that split window may be necessary to have a main tab and other tabs aside temporary (like today pane in lightning or related elements mentioned above), but that is another thing..]

  7. I have two uses that I see as distinct from the four cases you list:

    1) Open tab groups. I have tab folders for various purposes (one contains all my web sites and is used to verify they are up, another has my “daily” reading — traffic report, weather report, school sports calendar, etc). At specific times I open all the pages in folder into separate tabs, then close each tab as I read them.

    2) Avoid page reloads. Standard browsing is visit a page, follow a link, back up, follow another link. This is slow because of page reloads. I typically visit, for example, a news site, open an article to read in new tabs, then close the new tab after reading to return to the main news page. This is similar to Defer Action, except the goal isn’t to defer. It’s also similar to Switch Context, except I’m not really changing context.

  8. I’ve found that the “defer action” usage is particularly helpful when you’re on a slow connection (or the site’s slow). If the browser downloads and parses the page before you’re ready to look at it, you spend less time waiting. (For Thunderbird, that might be useful for big mail messages, but I don’t think Ioften get mails big enough for it to matter.)

  9. It’s easier to open/close tabs in FF with the mouse wheel than to open/close new windows. Besides, the way the Win taskbar handles a bunch of browser windows is plain ugly: with tabs I can at least look at the site icons

  10. i’m running Ubuntu (GNOME) and don’t see the advantage of having tabs in Firefox or in any other browser

    Since Linux desktop now has Compiz/Beryl effects like Expose for Mac, it seems obvious to me that the tab concept was a transitional idea.
    Tabs were efficient when desktop were not good at handling windows.
    At present time GNOME with Compiz Fusion has Expose, and GNOME allows to rearrange buttons in the Windows List.
    Therefore, GNOME (for instance) has at less the same level of functionalities than Firefox to manage several application windows.

    Then it doesn’t need anymore tabs because tabs doesn’t allow Expose to work.

    Tabs was a great idea when desktop were not good at managing multiple windows. Now it’s just useless

  11. One more use case with respect to tabs is that I often keep my webapps permanently open. I.e. I never really want to close my GMail, Google Reader, To-do list, etc. tabs – I always keep those open. The Prizm project is aimed at taking those tabs out of the browser and giving them their own windows, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

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