New Firefox Preferences Window

Ben is designing a new preferences window for Firefox. This is a great idea – the current pref window, while a vast improvement on the Mozilla/Netscape 4.x style, is still a little hard to get to grips with. As he doesn’t have comments on his blog, I have to trackback to give UI feedback, so here it is:

  • The old pref window has the high-level selector down the side. The new one has moved it to the top, which is more reminiscent of tabs, but the styling is still not tab-like. If you are going to change the orientation, why not go the whole hog and take advantage of the user familiarity with tabs by styling them appropriately? They can still be big, square and iconic – I’m not suggesting going back to just text.
  • I initially thought that the “Sanitise Settings” button was a command – it sanitised your settings, in other words it emptied your cache and history and so on.
  • A recent trend has been to reduce the number of top-level categories, perhaps to reduce the perceived complexity of the interface. However, this has just pushed the complexity down into the panels themselves, so each panel has sub-selectors of different types. In the screenshot, you have the sub-selector down the left as one type, and then View Cookies, Exceptions and Sanitise Settings presumably either change the pane or pop up another window – these are therefore another type. I’m not convinced that complexity has actually been reduced by this trend. We might produce a more understandable UI by reducing the pressure on the high-level category count.

15 thoughts on “New Firefox Preferences Window

  1. I fail to see how the current pref window is a vast improvement over the Mozilla one. In fact, I find the more fine-grained preferences tree in the Suite easier to navigate.

    Both the pref window and the new installer (for Windows) are significantly less usable than their Seamonkey counterparts. I hope this time Ben would do it right.


  2. 1. The layout used – with the white top and horizontal divider – much resembles the “wizard” or “assistant” type of window used in all apps I can ever remember that uses a wizard. This will only confuse people.
    2. I agree with Gerv that the new pref window actually looks more cluttered now. Ben should *really* take a look at GNOME Epiphany’s preferences window, which is easy, nice, and clean.

  3. Less usable? Less featureful to be certain, but certainly not less usable. Navigating through all the junk Seamonkey throws at you reduces Seamonkey’s prefs usability a good deal, in my opinion (certainly at least down to a par, even making the assumption that it’s wildly more usable otherwise). Take note of exactly which prefs Firefox omits and you’ll see that you haven’t lost much over Seamonkey anyway.

    I’ll withhold judgment until I see the final product. Some of the mockups I’ve seen aren’t particularly inspiring (for producing prefs UI that’s massively better), but given how vague some of the prefs UI is now, a change will almost certainly make some improvements.

  4. The new navigation bar at the top gives enough room to bring the Themes and Extensions panels (and maybe an upcoming Search panel) back into the Options dialog, which IMHO makes a bit more sense.

  5. “The top bar is very much in the style of OS X preferences windows.”

    Firefox is getting a MacOS X look and feel presumably because Ben uses MacOS X. Personally, I think I prefer the Windows conventions.

  6. IMHO this is much more usable across platforms.

    The current method is a bit hard for some users. I’ve noticed many don’t even know the pref they want is there. Since things colapse, and it’s just odd.

    The new design is very clear and logical… I like it.

  7. I agree with Gerv that having sub-selectors down the side inside a top-level selector is confusing. One GUI design rule is that if you do something like tabbed panes, you shouldn’t put sub-tabs inside your tabs. The ideal, of course, is that you somehow trim down the preferences enough that there are a maximum of 6 or so top-level categories, none of which needs sub-selectors (i.e. you can fit everything in a category on one panel, possibly broken into sets of prefs). Practically, that’s extremely difficult to pull off, as you have to really slice down the preferences available even more than they’ve already been cut down. As a compromise, I somewhat prefer the top-level selectors being on the left, with “tabs” as sub-selectors in the panel on the right, as that doesn’t break the metaphor of tabs as your selectors inside a single panel of broadly-grouped ideas.

    I also agree that the “Sanitize Settings” button looks like a command, and looking at the screenshot, I have no idea what it does. Does it actually santize my settings immediately when I push it? Or does it cause my browser to start santizing things when I exit?

    As a feature request, I wouldn’t mind a very brief mention of about:config somewhere; for example, maybe the first time you open the prefs panel, we don’t select any top-level categories, and we sho a message in the pane to the effect of “This window lets you configure the most commonly modified aspects of Firefox. For more advanced configuration options, enter “about:config” in your URL bar.” I have a lot of power-using friends who have recently tried out Firefox, and are always frustrated with the lack of configurability of things; they’ve never heard of about:config, and are amazed (and pleased) when I show it to them. OTOH, we might not want to clue in the average user to about:config, or else if we do, we might want to write a Gentoo USE-flags-style single line of documentation about each flag in there (and display them next to the flags) or a Linux kernel config-style togglable help screen for each option. This makes about:config more discoverable, and helps out even those of us who use it frequently but can’t remember whether “0”, “1”, or “2” is the setting we want sometimes.

  8. The ‘Sanitize Settings’ button should have ‘…’ on the end of it to indicate that it opens a new window (where u can change settings).

    Alternatively, why not just have sanitize settings as one of the options in the left-hand pane (along with Download History, Cookies, Cache, etc.)

  9. David: You’re right; perhaps that was an OS X screenshot and the Windows version will be more Windows-y.

    Prog: the fine-grained preference tree is hard to navigate because people find the tree widget hard to use. For example, people don’t expect the top-level entries to have a panel of their own as well as the sub-entries. And the initial-closedness of it means you can’t see immediately where the panel you want is; you have to go searching for it.

    Certainly writing instructions on how to change a particular pref is harder for Seamonkey than Firefox.

  10. The first thing I saw was the shift in orientation, too. In the top-most decision level, you go from left to right, then Ben switches to top down. That makes navigation harder, at least it seems to me. This might come from the not-so-tab visual appearance of the top-level items for now.

    Talking about support requests, I usually give instructions like “edit this on Extra -> Preferences -> Foo -> Bar”, not mentioning the switches in UI scheme. The switch in orientation within the preferences dialog may make it harder to follow such descriptions. And honestly, I’m not going to type more :-(.

  11. “The ‘Sanitize Settings’ button should have ‘…’ on the end of it to indicate that it opens a new window (where u can change settings).”

    Bzzt, sorry, its an options panel, which explicitly does not require further action (since you can just look and hit OK/Cancel without any changes) whereas “Print…” requires further action. We’ve actually done a good job of enforcing that.

  12. Mike: It’s hard to tell if “Sanitise” is an official name of a feature. (If so, let’s change it – it sounds like a feminine hygiene product.) But if it is, how about

    “Sanitise” Settings

    or, if its not an official feature name,

    Sanitisation Settings

    ? We need to disambiguate somehow.

  13. Gerv: I actually think that was a Windows screenshot. What I ment was that Firefox (all platforms) is getting a Mac OS X-ish look because Ben uses/likes the mac. And what I ment with that was that Ben has the privilege of handcrafting the design of Firefox to his liking, which can be a good thing if his liking agrees with mine, or a bad thing if we disagree. :P

  14. Great ideas, everyone. And I appreciate all the work that Ben puts into Fx. I like the new cookies page (especially the search bar), and the new “what should I do with this download” dialog; both needed updates and they look better now.

    However, I like the current layout for the main options window, with the large icons down the side. By putting them at the top, it feels incomplete somehow, and it makes the window take up more vertical than horizontal space. This seems like a drawback to me, since monitors are wider than they are tall, and I think the current selector is more aesthetically pleasing and unique.

    The same goes for the privacy tab – I like the way that it is, with the expanders and the simple descriptions, and I think they are more appealing as they are. Also, setting the “sanitization” preferences to take effect on shutdown is a useful idea, and deserves the attention it’s getting.