By the time you’re reading this, you’ve likely have several other tabs open on your browser that you may want to access.
Internet browser tabs are a major cause of friction on the Internet. People love them. People hate her. For some users, tabs keep them organized and efficient when browsing the Internet. For others, they get out of hand and shrink to the top of the screen as their number increases.
A research team at Carnegie Mellon University recently completed the first in-depth study of browser tabs in more than a decade. They found that many people are struggling with tab overload. One reason for this is that while tabs perform a wide variety of functions, they often do it poorly.
“Browser tabs are the most basic tools you use on the Internet,” said Joseph Chee Chang, a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Computer Science’s Human Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) and a member of the research team. “Despite being so ubiquitous, we’ve found that people have all sorts of problems with them.”
The team will present their article “When the Tab Is Due: Challenges in the Cost Structure of Using Browser Tabs” at the Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems (CHI 2021) May 8-13.
For the study, the team conducted surveys and interviews with people about their tab use. The study details why people kept the tabs open, including using it as a reminder or fear of having to look for information again. It has also been researched why people closed tabs, knowing that overloading the tabs can strain a person’s attention and computing resources. About 25% of participants in some aspect of the study said their browser or computer crashed because too many tabs were open.
The researchers found that people felt invested in the tabs that were open, which made it difficult for them to close the tabs, even if they felt overwhelmed or embarrassed by the number of tabs open.
Tabs first appeared in web browsers in 2001 and have not changed much since then. However, the internet has. There is roughly a billion times more information on the Internet now than it was 20 years ago. Today a tab could contain an email inbox. Another could be used for a music or video player. Articles that are kept for future reference can be in other tabs, as can restaurant reviews or information for an upcoming trip. Add social media websites, news or other pages used to work or play, and it’s easy to open a dozen or more tabs or windows at once.
It turns out that tabs aren’t the best tool for completing complex work and life tasks that people do on the internet. Their simple list structure makes it difficult for users to switch between task sets throughout the day. And while people use tabs as an external form of memory, they fail to capture the rich structure of their thoughts. The researchers found that while users complained that they were overwhelmed by the number of tabs they would later work on, they also didn’t want to put them out of sight because they were worried about never going back to them.
“People feared that once something was out of sight, it was gone,” said Aniket Kittur, professor at HCII and head of the research team. “The fear of this black hole effect was so great that people were forced to keep tabs open even when the number became overwhelming.”
Tab overload also arises from sensory and decision-making tasks, in which a person has to take in information from many sources, combine it and come to a result. For example, when someone is doing research on what camera to buy, that person may look for various reviews, guides, and shopping sites to compare models.
“Dealing with these types of tasks is really one of the most important aspects of productivity in our lives,” said Kittur. “And the most important tool anyone uses to do this is tab, even if they don’t do a good job.”
The team believes that today’s browsers are not a good tool for managing all of the information and tasks that people go online for. To fix this, they created Skeema, an extension for the Google Chrome browser that redefines tabs as tasks.
The extension helps users group their tabs into tasks and then organize, prioritize and switch between them. Skeema uses machine learning to suggest how to group open tabs into tasks and supports nested tasks and complex decisions.
Users of an early version of the tool significantly reduced the number of tabs and windows open, reported less tab-related stress, and continued to focus more on the task at hand. Many of the early beta testers used the tool on a daily basis to manage the tabs and tasks in their lives.
“Our task-oriented approach allowed users to manage their browser tabs more efficiently to better switch between tasks, reduce tab clutter, and create task structures that better reflect their mental models,” said Chang. “As our online tasks become more complex, new interfaces and interactions that can bring tab management and task management together in one browser become more and more important. After 20 years of little innovation, Skeema is a first step in making tabs work better for users allow.”
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