Firefox is meant to be a small and simple browser with only the most basic features. More features can be added as extensions. The basic features (not so basic comparing to IE and some other browsers) are tabbed browsing, pop-up blocker, download manager, a mini search-bar (Google by default) and all the usual suspects (bookmark and theme manager, etc). Firefox comes with a simple theme but more can be added. Every new Firefox release so far has come with a different theme. I love seeing new themes. Aren't you tired of seeing Mozilla's old theme ironically named "Modern"? Firefox installer is less than 5MB, which means with a fast Internet connection it can be downloaded in seconds. It's great if you want to install it on other people's computers ;-).
My favourite extensions so far are Bookmark Synchroniser (the name says it all) and single window (opens new tabs instead of new windows). Of course you always open pages in a new tab if you use the middle button but I use this to avoid those annoying links that open in a new window. Other people seem to like Googlebar (in case you need more than just the basic search-bar... I don't). There's also a more advanced pop-up blocker I'm more than OK with the default pop-up blocker. You can also download or add more search engines to the search-bar. These use the same format as the original Mozilla browser and I've found every engine I use regularly (Dict.org, Wikipedia, eBay, IMDB, etc).
Firefox has a simple user interface and as far as the options go the user only sees what needs to be changed. More advanced options are accessed in a hierarchy so everything is very clear for the user. (If needed, more options can be changed by adding an extension or editing the configuration files directly if you are comfortable doing that and don't want to bother installing an extra plug-in.
After installing Firefox (only a few clicks and no confusing options), the user will see a very simple and clear interface with what you would expect to see in a web browser and (almost) nothing more: Those five browser buttons, an address bar and a tiny search bar with Google's logo clearly showing what it does. Default options are great for most users if not all and the menus are very clear and easy to understand too. There is no help (except for tool tips) and it is not needed for basic use anyway as a good user interface should not require a written manual.
Firefox 0.9 (the Linux version only) was a real disappointment for me. In the new version "Tools->Options" menu is now "Edit->Preferences" and OK/Cancel buttons are reversed (I think they've been that way since 0.8). This is because Firefox for Linux is going to be integrated with GNOME desktop environment so the developers have decided to "Gnomify" it. Apparently the menus can be edited back to where they belong (without having to recompile) and we might end up seeing some Linux distributions do it. But average users can not do that and they don't expect to see the buttons move either! I think there should been special edition for GNOME. I think it would be much better to keep the same program consistent on all systems rather than changing it to make it consistent with other programs in one system. GNOME is not even an operating system but one of many desktop environments for Linux. Even not all GNOME programs follow that standard. Gaim (an instant messenger for GNOME that is ported to other operating systems) is one example. I particularly hate the position of buttons. I use server authentication for my fax server (the username/password dialog with OK/Cancel buttons) and even though it's been a while since they switch the buttons I still hit the Cancel button after typing my password and have to do it again. Fortunately (in a way) I see more Windows users switch to Firefox due to problems with IE than Linux users so this issue doesn't apply to most new users.
The problem with bad user interfaces is the fact that they are designed by, and thus for, technical people. I do not believe simply following design guidelines is enough. For example in my experience people generally are not comfortable switching from a hard-to-use user interface they have got used to, to a very easy-to-use interface that is new to them and they call what they've got used to more user-friendly. So I always run my own little practical experiment with average users.
My experiment with Firefox had interesting results and I've been observing new Firefox users for over 6 months now. I initially performed an experiment in Windows by installing Firefox on the shared computers at work. After a short while I realized most colleagues of mine are now using Firefox as their default browser. In fact some of them got their family members to use it. I also asked my family and friends who were having problems with IE - mostly due to pop-ups, worms and spy-ware - to switch to Firefox. After a short while they too started recommending Firefox to their friends and they all mentioned the ease of use and useful features. With the small download size I see my new Firefox users install Firefox on every computer they touch. I also discovered people who use Firefox as their default browser are more comfortable using Linux too because they can use Firefox and it's safe to say no program is used more often than your web browser.
About the author:
Hooman Baradaran is currently a senior at York University in Toronto, Canada. He's currently working on a his paper on use of haptics devices in a 3D design system.
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