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.
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.
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
- Initial support for tabbed e-mail in today’s trunkbuild
- Tabbed 3-pane UI in TB
- Thunderbird earns its tabs
- Mozilla Thunderbird Gets Tabs
- Latest TBird 3.0a1pre Nightly has Tabs!
- tabbed message browsing in Thunderbird: updated patch and test builds
- Mozilla Thunderbird Gets Firefox-style Tabs
- Opera M2 and Thunderbird: tabs (wow!)
- Tabs in Thunderbird – Status Update
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.