Nov 20 2009

Web Browser Usability : It's Out Of The Web Designer's Control

Whether you’re a casual internet user or a multi-browser power user, the web is nothing without a way to view it. We try to create a good experience for the website user, but unfortunately it’s not always as simple as building a slick user interface. No matter how much work you put into a design and interaction, an old or incapable browser can make the user’s experience very unpleasant. If this experience is sufficiently unpleasant, the user may just give up, and who is to blame them?

Which of These Says "Internet"For the layman: What is a browser?

If you’re used to clicking the “Internet Button” on your computer, then here’s what you need to know should know. When you ask for a web page, whether it be your favorite blog, or a spiffy web application like Dropbox, you’re asking a web browser to fetch the page for you. There are many web browsers available to the end user, and they all have their own features and quirks. The issue that emerges here is that some browsers increase the frustration levels of their users, while others make the experience painless. Many users are not even aware that they have a choice in what web browser they use. The icons above correspond to the four major browsers:

  • Mozilla Firefox:If you like a stable, well behaved web browser with the ability to install extensions that add all sorts of features, Firefox is for you.
  • Microsoft’s Internet Explorer:This web browser ships on all Windows-based computers, and is the “Internet Button” for many casual users. Sadly, its capabilities don’t measure up to the others. (In my opinion)
  • Apple’s Safari:This web browser ships on Apple’s operating system, and is the default web browser for Mac users. It is very fast, and has a well rounded set of features that cater to the casual user.
  • Google’s Chrome:Google claims that its mission with Chrome was to create a browser that was streamlined, simple and very fast. They have accomplished these objectives, and it has become a serious contender in the web browser-space because of that. It’s feature set is still lacking though.

How browsers help users get around bad usability

Popup Blockers – This handy little feature is standard on all modern browsers. They stop us designers, developers and most of all, advertisers from bombarding the user with new windows they didn’t ask for. (But that’s OK, because light-boxes and annoying advertisements that slide in from the sides of the screen have filled that space now).

Internet Explorer’s colored tab groups – This is truly a great browser innovation.  Internet Explorer 8 has a feature where the tabs belonging to each other share a (seemingly randomly chosen) hue. In the image below, I first opened Lifehacker. Then I opened the Ruby on Rails website. From there, I opened two of the other Ruby on Rails pages by choosing “Open in new tab” and Internet Explorer chose to group them in green – clever. You can see that the same thing happened when I opened our blog in a new tab thereafter, although the blue color chosen was a bit too close to the original, uncolored tab.

ie8-grouped-tabs

Safari/Chrome’s resizeable text areas – Safari and Chrome introduced us to a great feature where the user could change the dimensions of a <textarea> input simply by dragging a handle located at the lower right corner. This is great for the user, but it can destroy some of the more creative designs incorporating <textarea> elements. While this is good for the user, many developers seek to disable it, in order to have more control over the design and layout of the page.

Safari’s resizeable address/search bar – Safari also introduced a feature where the user could change the size of the search box and address bar. It’s pretty nifty if you like doing super long search queries.

really-long-search-box

Then again, there’s always Google’s & Mozilla’s approach: Make the address bar a search box; see my Awesome Bar comments below.

Sins of the browser

Firefox’s “Awesome Bar” – Firefox’s Awesome Bar (their clever name for an address/search bar) is great and all, but it’s super slow when Firefox has just been opened. At times I type something and Firefox just sits there for 5-10 seconds while it thinks of “Awesome” things to do with the first 5 characters of my search query… very annoying. Once things get going and Firefox becomes more comfortable with the fact that it’s now open and running, it speeds up a bit.

Here’s what happens if you type “awesome bar” into the awesome bar:

Not-so-awesome Bar?

Internet Explorer’s “Double Window Opening & Wizard Box” on first run – This one gets me every time. When you launch IE8 for the first time, it opens two windows, and puts a wizard in your face asking about default search providers, phishing, suggested sites etc. It’s enough to make your user forget about visiting your site and go outside for a walk instead. My solution: set defaults and ask me later. I just installed/upgraded/opened my new computer, don’t give me too much else to do. I want to see a website, not configure the heck out of my browser – very distracting. Granted, this only happens once when you first open IE, but for me it’s one time too many.

RSS IconChrome is still lacking support for XML/RSS – If you know what RSS is, chances are that you love it! You know the drill, you click the little orange symbol, then it’s handled somehow… but not in Chrome. When viewing RSS feeds in Google’s Chrome, it shows jumbled text (code with no formatting). Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer 8 on the other hand, show nicely formatted feeds with options to save them as a bookmark or in Firefox’s case; add it to your Google homepage or Google Reader.

Google’s lack of RSS support in Chrome is laughable, especially since they have a product that is considered to be one of the best RSS readers out there.

As a website owner, this RSS issue affects usability because when your users click the RSS icon on your site, if they are in Firefox they’re greeted with a good experience, but if they click that icon in Chrome, they think they broke the internet or something.

Sadly, it’s all out of our hands…

The myriad of browsers out there, some feature-full, some robust, and some lacking,  all have different things to offer. As a developer, my biggest concern is that a user’s browser will throw an alert box in their face saying that there has been a “Error on line 124″ because of the web browser’s unique way of processing JavaScript! Oh my, what now? Or maybe it will output a full page of raw XML (I’m talking to you Chrome). At that point, your users may leave and go to a different site. The browser was once a simple tool to display HTML; it’s so much more than that now. Along with some cool usability enhancements, these newer browsers are also taking some things out of our control. As a web developer that scares me a bit, but then again the user should have the control right?

Related reading on browser issues:

About the Author:

Jamie is a developer at digital-telepathy, a user experience design studio that specializes in creating products like SlideDeck. He likes creating 3D things in his spare time. You can also follow Jamie on Google+.

Leave a Response

1 Response

  1. Nov 23 2009
    Dan

    Nice Post! I use firefox for work because the add-ons are really helpful for design, however the browser can take up to 5 mins to launch when i start my computer, hopefully they are working on this :)