What do you want to see when you open a new tab?

20011015-chrome-newtab-apps 20011015-chrome-newtab-recent

I’ve been thinking about browsers’ new tab pages recently. My default browser is Google Chrome so I’ll largely be focusing on that in this post.

By default, certainly on the version that I have installed (I’m on the Dev channel which allows me to see up-and-coming features—and bugs—before they are available on the stable channel) I get two options:

  • Apps
  • Most visited pages

Most visited pages

The most visited pages feature is the sort of thing that many browsers do now. Opera does it; I’ve a vague notion that they were the first with their speed dial page:

20011015-opera-newtab 

The Apple Safari one is really attractive, almost cinematic.

20011015-safari-newtab

Even Internet Explorer 9 does it.

Most visited doesn’t mean favourite

The thing is, when I open a new tab in my browser, as you would expect, it’s usually because I want to open a new page, visit another web site, or open a new web application. But I am finding that I rarely, if ever, use these most popular/most visited pages for a number of reasons.

First, I don’t find their design particularly helpful.

Chrome, Safari and Opera all show a resized screenshot of the website. But there is too much detail in a screenshot, that when it gets squeezed down to 205 x 128 pixels it loses its immediacy and usefulness.

Usually, it’s not immediately obvious what the site is from a tiny screenshot, so I find that I waste a lot of time trying to determine whether these are the links I need or not. Also, depending on your browser’s theme, the text beneath the screenshot isn’t always obvious either.

Some browsers will also update the screenshot if you’ve not visited the site in a while, or have cleared your browser’s cache so the page may actually look completely different from the last time you visited (remember) it.

It doesn’t pass the Steve Krug Don’t make me think! test.

Internet Explorer 9, on the other hand, takes a different approach. IE shows white boxes containing the site’s favicon and a bar, which indicates how often you’ve visited the site (e.g. “Very active”, “Active”, etc.).

20011015-ie9-newtab

As you can see from the screenshot above, though, is that 4/10 sites there don’t have icons, or they’ve not been downloaded for some reason.

So the horizontal bar then becomes the most obvious feature of each box; given that we lazy humans will tend to pay attention to pictures and coloured shapes before we attempt to read anything, because that uses energy!

There are blue, green and purple bars. But what do the colours represent? It’s not obvious. It turns out that IE rather cleverly draws the colour from the favicon.

It’s better, but it’s still not perfect. What if the sites listed aren’t actually the sites that I want to visit most frequently?

Second, most visited doesn’t necessarily mean favourite.

IE tells me that these sites are my “most popular sites”, Chrome that they are my “most visited”, Safari that they are simply, and rather neutrally, “top sites”. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are my favourite.

Because I visit a particular location many times doesn’t immediately make it one of my favourite locations.

In St Andrews I generally park on Langlands Road. That makes it one of my most visited streets. But it’s not my favourite location in St Andrews; St Mary’s quad is.

Because I’m involved in Web design I generally find myself flipping between different browsers frequently, in order to test pages. So my “most visited” sites quickly fill up with screenshots of test pages. And different browsers may require more testing than others.

That’s not useful.

Third, I clear my cache a lot, also for testing purposes. And every time I clear my cache it resets my “most visited” sites counter too. So any useful sites that I’ve accrued over the last week or so also get wiped.

Why not use favourites?

The browser that I think has got it closest is Opera.

Opera allows you to choose which sites are displayed on your Speed Dial/new tab page.

20011015-opera-speeddial

It also doesn’t use the entire screenshot, but a cropped portion, which tends to include the site name. I can quickly, and easily see what these sites are. It passes the “Don’t make me think!” test. I also find that I use this feature a lot in Opera Mobile on my HTC HD2.

This makes much more sense to me: show me the sites that I want to visit most often, or the resources that I find most helpful, even if I don’t visit them every day.

Google Chrome’s apps screen also comes close to what I would find useful:

20011015-chrome-newtab-apps

Now, this is getting somewhere. The icons are simple and recognisable, even though the text labels aren’t easy to read against the grass background.

The only problem is that I’m now dependent on developers creating a Google Chrome  shortcut app to the site that I want to visit. In my own Web development I use four sites frequently:

  • Heart Internet control panel
  • Pivotal Tracker
  • Assembla SVN
  • Deploy

As you can see from the screenshot above only 2/4 of those sites have shortcut apps. If I want to include them on my apps pages then I’ll need to create them myself. Which is fine for me as a Web developer, but a it of a pain for most other Web users.

My faves

I came across myfav.es today which is designed to easily allow you to choose your favourite sites and then set that page as your browser’s homepage.

This is mine:

20011015-myfaves

As you can see some of the shortcuts use built-in, default application icons such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and YouTube.

The more generic icons (heart, notepad, cloud, download, ‘B’) are non-standard links that I’ve entered manually. There are loads of icons to choose from, and you can specify what colour they should be.

It’s very clear, and highly customizable. That’s exactly what I want when I open a new tab. Something like this would be really useful, as a built-in feature, to browsers. Particularly as user-interfaces, like Windows Phone/Windows 8 Metro UI become more popular.

There are a couple of Chrome extensions that replace the default new tab page:

But both also remove the cursor from the address bar when you open a new tab, which means if you want to start typing a new URL or a search query you have to manually select the address bar (“omnibox”) either with your mouse or a keyboard shortcut (Ctrl+D on Windows).

I’ve now simply set this as my homepage in all my browsers. And so far it’s proving very useful, and consistent.