The Problem With Tabbed Interfaces

Cyrus Najmabadi* hates tabs in web browsers:

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

Listen to the smart people who tell you Opera is the way to go, or wait another 3-5 years until Firefox/IE steal Opera’s window+tab management functions and proclaim they were the first to invent it.

I cannot understand people who use something other than Opera (except if it’s for debugging stuff, where Firebug comes really handy).

Okay, I disagree with your (Jeff’s) assessment of the usefulness of tabs because I work differently than he does, but I’ll suspend that for a second.

What I don’t get is why you make a huge jump to suggest a search-based windowing interface. You’ve gone from a quick, visual inspection issue to one requiring metadata, indexing, and a host of other issues (SEO?).

Wouldn’t it be a better solution to your visual problem to wish for someone to make an extension that busts tabs out ala Expose while you alt-tab? If we’re suggesting interfaces why not one that fits to your problem domain (the problem of visually finding what you want when it’s hidden)?

Or perhaps someone could produce an extension for Firefox that merely lists the URLs during an alt-tab inspection? But searching as a solution here seems way off.

I use the firefox minimize to tray extension to make certain windows in firefox that are always open go to the tray. That way if I need to open gmail or pandora I know where to look for it. It’s in the tray.
Beyond that I think browser windows work best when used to group a certain task. I might have one window where all the tabs are news articles I intend to read, another for documentation on a project, and another for another task. That way It acts almost like a tree format. If I’m looking for one particular page I know what category it’s in and start by finding the browser window it fits into then I search the tabs.

And even after firefox and IE copy it, they can only do so at 2x or 4x the load times.

Jeff, I totally agree with you. I’ve run into many of the same problems.

I think that tabs are just a way of overcoming some of the limitations of the overlapping window and taskbar model. Maybe the answer is not to rethink tabs, but to rethink overlapping windows? I wrote a post on my blog about this:

You are fundamentally missing the point of tabs. The idea is to do just what you are complaining about: hide the specific list of contents in each window.

The “right” use of tabbed browsing, IMHO, is to separate context. In one window I have all the tabs related to a particular line of thought, in another set of tabs I have blog catchups, etc.

Why isn’t gmail in it’s own window? Seems like it should be it’s own task. Taking part in a forum? Shouldn’t that also be it’s own window?

In my desktop, I rarely run across the issue you describe, because I have my windows divided (manually). The fly in the ointment is when I open a link from another application: it by default goes as a tab in one of the windows I have open, and most of the time that’s the wrong window (simple odds). Thankfully with Safari 3 I can just drag the tab over to the “right” window.

In short, if you frequently finding yourself wondering if you have a particular site open and can not narrow your search down to even a subset of windows, it seems you have a workstyle issue, not a tabs/windows issue. You’d be JUST as lost with 75 tabs in your Windows task bar, where each tab has nothing visible other than the IE icon, or with IE windows all “grouped” into a list with no apparent or logical organization. Tabs can help you, if you use them right!

That all being said: one thing I’d LOVE to see is the ability to LABEL MY WINDOWS. I don’t care nearly so much about the specific tab selected in a particular Safari window so much as I do that that window houses my blogs, and the other one is related to a particular forum I’m looking at, and the other one is LaTeX reference materials, and the other one has bug tracking, and the last is the company’s development wiki. Instead, I have to guess the window designation based on the TITLE attribute of the particular tab which is frontmost! It’s a bit insane and makes tabs less useful than they should be.

I think initial reports indicated that The Warriors had shot Cyrus.


Switcher 2 –

This is truly an excellent link-- looks like Switcher 2.0 will be a big improvement! However, to address the tab issue, the search function has to be extended to work inside the tabs-- or the tabs somehow exploded out temporarily so they are visible and clickable.

Watching Apple, great link. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. We could postpone this problem when tabs were rare, but now that tabs are everywhere, we definitely need a better way to deal with them.

The “right” use of tabbed browsing, IMHO, is to separate context

I agree. Unlike Visual Studio, there is no strong theme connecting any given browser tab to another. I’m three clicks away from opening a page about Kevin Bacon at any time.

Sure, I should have discipline and not have the “wet t-shirt contest” and “william howard taft” pages open as tabs in the same browser, but the very nature of the internet makes this difficult.

Despite their problems, tabs are (usually) easier to deal with than full-blown windows. I’m starting to think the problem is the way windows themselves work…

For some reason, my OS supports folders. Instead of just throwing every document I ever create or download into a simple “Documents” folder, it actually encourages me to make sub-folders based on some categorization and throw them there instead!

Logical hierarchies are a critical way the human mind operates. While the case might be made that most objects belong in multiple places in any given hierarchy, organizing and working off that organization can and should be second nature to a functioning adult.

If you have a hard time putting “gmail” into it’s own window every time, how often do you lose your car keys? How do you ever find your Christmas decorations the next year? For that matter, how do you manage to dress yourself in the morning without ramsacking the entire house looking for a pair of socks?

It really just comes down to simple, mindless organization. I can guarantee you: if you put your mind to it, then you will be able to do it. I’d also wager that you’d spend less time training yourself to put gmail in its own window and operate with windows-as-tasks/tabs-as-details than you have already spent complaining about tabs!

“Logical hierarchies are a critical way the human mind operates. While the case might be made that most objects belong in multiple places in any given hierarchy, organizing and working off that organization can and should be second nature to a functioning adult.”

Classic bad-UI Stockholm syndrome. Hierarchies are an obsolete artifact of the physical world, where an object can’t be in more than one place at the same time. Tags are the future.

Jeff, “no self-respecting computer user should EVER have only one monitor.” Seriously? And, “the disconnect between Alt+Tab and Ctrl+Tab-- it’s highly modal, and users hate modes”. Honestly, Give it a try, - it will less than 2 days for your fingers to get used to it (maybe a little more to overcome the mindset). [Tip: Switching between thingies atop your screen (tabs) use Ctrl, switching between thingies at the bottom use Alt.]

I run dual monitors, and usually group the different tasks I have consistently between the 2 monitors, so I know left is this, right is that.

I don’t mind CTRL+TAB that much since I hate ALT+TAB between so many apps. I have developed a hierarchy in my mind as to if something deserves a SHIFT+mouse1 or a mouse3 style click, and I run a vertical taskbar on the widescreen to keep things neat. Here’s an image to illustrate:

At the time I screen capped that I was encountering a bug with UltraMon where the 2nd monitors bar wasn’t wide enough to display text, it was a dated version.

Eventually I will pickup another 4:3 monitor for the other side, but for now, this works.

I just takes practice to keep things clean. If you recall a few years back to how horrid things were before tabs at all, its a worthy compromise at the end of the day.

Good article. =)

Searching is overrated, as it’s a seperate process, and URL-based detection relies on the webapp to be constructed in a certain way.

I wonder how you go about opening your GMail, Jeff?

After reading all the posts thinking of this today another great way to use tabs is to click the scroll bar on links it opens the link in a new tab. This is good since the original page is still open. All the comments proves how strongly people feel about this topic.
Thx again,

Again, the disconnect between Alt+Tab and Ctrl+Tab-- it’s highly modal, and users hate modes. It’s so hard to remember which one you’re in at any given time. Is this a tab? Is it a window? Why should I have to worry about treating them so differently?

Frankly, I don’t have a problem. There is a logical distinction between stuff on the web and stuff on your computer – if nothing else, there is a certain level of unreliability to stuff on the web. I don’t “hate” switching between the modes at all.

Then again, I’m a vim user :wink:

I rarely open more than one browser window, so I just have to check the tabs in one place. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

If you have tabs, why open multiple browsers?

Hey Jeff, long time reader first time poster.

Umm… knowing that gmail is a website, wouldn’t you first just look for any browsers you had open and see what their tabs say?

At most I have 2 separate browsers open because each one holds several tabs. That pretty much narrows my search down to 2 mouse click.

Like Chris, I keep only 1 browser open, or 2 at most (ff and IE) so looking for a site is as easy as opening firefox and looking through the tabs.

Another great program that can help is Enso. hold caps-lock and type in the name of the window/tab/program and it will find it and let you switch to it, and thats really only the basic capabilities of that program.

Hey Now Jeff,
Another good post, very interesting topic. Maybe you could followup with the memory usage using one IE window with 5 tabs open vs. 5 windows of IE open. I love tabs and constantly use the hotkeys Ctrl+Tab Ctrl+Tab+Shift also Ctrl+Q to navigate though the tabs. I also really enjoy being able to open a group of tabs at once.

With more than one monitor (and no self-respecting computer user should EVER have only one monitor), you need one instance of the browser per monitor. At least if you want to view things side by side.

I typically have at least 3 browser instances open at any given time. Sometimes many more.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, we only have one browser instance. That means 12+ tabs trapped inside that a single window. Any more and the titles are probably unreadable. And how do you deal with the dissonance between Alt+Tab (switch apps) and Ctrl+Tab (switch tabs within an app)?