Saturday, February 27, 2016

the life-changing magic of tidying tab bars

My last entry was about rebinding keys in to change behaviors in browsers; either to encourage (getting back a closed tab) or discourage (quit and new window) certain commands. It's masking "New Window" that has really changed my computer life for the better; to my surprise it has become a reinvigorating life hack, and so I think I have something to learn by thinking more deeply about the UX of it. (Hopefully more widely applicable than just "stuff I like")

When a coworker would pick on me for having too many browsers open, I'd kind of defend it by explaining how it let me "group" tasks, so when I went on a tangent, one that might make use of multiple tabs itself (like investigating products on Amazon, or opening up a few Gizmodo windows) I might cmd-n myself a new window for each one:

But the windows would pile up, and I was doing a lot of cmd-` shuffling through (or using Hyperdock's window thumbnails) and by the end of the day I'd have a ton of windows hanging out. I'd argue for it though, saying it let me leverage spatial memory a bit. In reality it was just a hard to break habit; I'd cmd-t for a minor thing, and cmd-n when it felt like it was a very new subject. Or just because.

Life with the new system looks more like this:

Cmd-click opens a new tab just to the right of the tab that holds the link, so it's easy to get that clustering effect. (Also, browsers let you reorder the tab bar, so if you want to indulge in micromanaging placement, you have options - these options parallel the dragging windows into relative physical locations that I used to rely on.)

This new system has a number of benefits. Chief among them is visibility: windows aren't lost behind. Having a single row also acts like a thermometer of how distracted I am, and encourages quick, frequent review of "do I still need those tab?" Being compelled to have a single tab row oddly has a better use of spatial memory - early in a typical browser section I might open gmail, and it often makes sense to keep it open, so it gets a "place of honor" near the left corner. Overall there's a timeline aspect to it, kind of flattened tree of tangents I've followed.

When I rambled about this on Facebook (I have tolerant friends) David P said
That is a very strange thing that you do. I can basically not imagine having more than one window per browser open.
My guess is that his history has been much more Mac-centric than mine. By having the menu bar be at the top of the screen and not on each window (and then by adding a Dock that gave you one clicky thing per app) Apple has generally not encouraged multiple window use - just stuff that really needed multiple views, like Explorer or an art program maybe. My habits were formed in Windows 95 and on... and 5 years ago I was rambling on how I preferred the Windows task-centric approach. Not only that, but some of these habits took root before browsers even had tabs, which went mainstream in the early to mid-2000s.

One minor aspect supporting "one window to rule them all" browsing is that websites have gotten better at supporting ridiculous widths. As much as web designers have to think about tiny screens for mobile, they're even better at coping with giant swaths of horizontal screen real estate, since this is what they have in front of them all the time. (In the dark ages sites would let text run as wide as the window, which actually justified giving various sites their own easily resizable window.)

Ah well. I'd love hearing from people if they tend to use multiple browser windows or stick to one...

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