Taming tabs and bookmarks

(Ad, please don’t block)

Tabs were a major usability advancement for web browsers. They make it much easier to work with multiple locations at the same time and the ability to open links “in the background” turns them into a to-do list for pages that one still wants to read. However, before long, tabs also exhibit the negative traits of to-do lists: There are too many things still to consider and everything grows stale. This post presents ideas for how to tame tabs, for how to avoid those traits. Some of the ideas can be put into practice right now, others are about improving browsers and making a mental shift to fully exploit those improvements.

Organizing many open tabs

One improvement for handling tabs can already be tried out today, via a Firefox add-on.

Horizontal tabs. Most browsers display tabs horizontally, at the top of the window. However, as their number increases, tabs become difficult to handle: They grow narrower and less of their title is displayed. And figuring out which tabs are related becomes harder, for example, which tabs were opened from the same page.

Vertical tabs. The obvious fix is to display tabs vertically. With wide screens being ubiquitous, horizontal space is more readily available than vertical space, so putting tabs there makes more sense. Additionally, if many tabs are open, one simply scrolls vertically, which is more natural than scrolling horizontally. And the tabs remain wide, their titles remain readable. The Firefox add-on “Tree Style Tab” provides one more service: It shows tabs as a tree (which you are free to rearrange) and makes new tabs the children of the tabs from which they were opened. That imposes some immediate order that is very useful. Reader rsanchez1 points out that Opera has another solution: A Tab Stack is a group of tabs that is created by dragging one tab onto another one.

Current browsers implement one more helpful measure: Background tabs receive a greatly reduced amount of processing power. That is very noticeable under Firefox 10 which handles many open tabs gracefully, where previous versions slowed down the complete system.

Encouraging the closing of tabs

Even better than successfully managing many open tabs would be to avoid opening them in the first place. At any given time, there are only a few tabs one is actively working with. As soon as a tab is left open to be looked at beyond the current day, it is used as long-term storage for a URL, a task that bookmarks are better at. Then why don’t people use bookmarks and close their tabs? The problem is that you have to file a bookmark; you have to find a location where you can put it, possibly creating such a location (e.g., a folder) if it doesn’t exist, yet. In contrast, tabs are piled, you simply open new tabs, without worrying about a location. The difference in effort might seem minor, but it means that people usually don’t bookmark and use Google to find sites that they have previously visited. If we can make bookmarking easier, people won’t need to keep their tabs around as long.

Simple bookmarking. Idea: Instead of the current forest, manage bookmarks as a stream that is ordered chronologically by date of last visit (inspiration: Gelernter’s lifestreams [1]). In order to bookmark a tab, you click on a star that appears when you hover above it. A modifier key allows you to star and close a tab at the same time. Another modifier key lets you additionally add tags. They can be quickly entered as a single comma-separated text string. Tagging is faster than placing a bookmark in a folder, because coming up with a tag name is faster than finding a folder. This process also lends itself well to keyboard navigation: Switch between tabs with Alt-Tab (Ctrl-Tab on Macs), hit a shortcut to close and tag, enter a single line of tags, hit return and be done.

It is important that simple bookmarking be complemented by powerful navigation features, such as “descending” into a tag: Text searches will only be among bookmarks that have the tag; the tags displayed for additional filtering will only be those that exist among the currently displayed bookmarks. The browsing history would include the tagged bookmarks and have more structure. There is much research on how to improve navigation and management of tagged entities, all of which applies here. Note that Firefox already supports most of this style of bookmarking, including tags. But it is still limited when it comes to navigating and managing those bookmarks.

Too many bookmarks? If our inboxes and to-do lists are any indication then simple bookmarking would result in many bookmarks that you will never look at again. That phenomenon is a fact of life. To help, we take a cue from the brain and introduce aging (“forgetting”) to bookmarks: Bookmarks that haven’t been visited in a long time are considered less relevant. That relevancy will influence browsing (where more recent bookmarks show up first) and search (where older bookmarks are ranked lower). Aging is complemented by manual prioritization via tags: a tag “todo” will have more importance to a user than a tag “might read later”. But technical features can only go so far, a mental shift is required, as well: Users will have to accept that they will never revisit all of their bookmarks, they will have to become gracious about forgetting them.


  1. Information management classics: Lifestreams (1996)