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May 09, 2014
Update — 2014/05/28
I added a slideshow of some of the design iterations we went through from Firefox 4 to Firefox 29.
Warning: It’s image heavy, might take a while to load on a slow connection.
We spent a lot of time on it.
Dedicating yourself to a project can become an intense experience. You think about it all the time: in the morning, at dinner, when you are trying to watch a movie, in the shower, in your sleep, when you should be sleeping…
But then you set it free, because it’s finally mature enough for that. It’s exciting. But it’s also really scary. You are never sure if you made the right decisions along the way. I like to take some time in the post release glow for some reflection.
We launched Firefox 4 in March 2011. It was a big change from Firefox 3. It introduced the Firefox button, revamped the add-ons manager, removed the status bar, combined the stop, go and reload buttons and included a comprehensive visual update—all while still having time to prototype and discard some other features along the way.
And yet it wasn’t perfect. It had a lot of the rough edges that projects accumulate in the process of going from being designed and built to being shipped.
Firefox 4 was our last monolithic release before we moved to a rapid release cycle. Six week cycles seemed like the perfect timeframe to iteratively smooth out the rough edges. So I created a project to do just that.
The project that I had created for iterative refinement however quickly transformed into a significant overhaul.
At the beginning of June the UX team met up for its first post Firefox 4 team offsite. On the agenda was figuring out “What’s next?”. The entire team gathered in a room to pitch ideas and talk about problems unresolved—or that had been introduced—during the development of Firefox 4.
One theme that had been floating around for a while rose to the surface— Firefox is about customization, it should feel like it’s yours.
What would this mean for the interface we had just shipped? A lot of ideas were tossed around. Eventually one guiding principal stuck—make the best core experience we can and allow users to add and change the things that matter the most to them.
Building a fun easy to use Customization Mode—along with a more flexible Firefox Menu—would become the foundation of the new Firefox.
So Curve, Such Aerodynamic
The offsite also sparked a set of other ideas that would make up what became known as Australis. Primarily: unifying the disparate bookmarking elements in the main window, refining the visual design, consolidating related or redundant features and streamlining the tabstrip.
While the redesigned customization mode would be core to the experience—the redesigned tabstrip would change the entire profile of Firefox.
We had explored the idea of adding visual cues to Firefox to make it feel faster and smoother before. Yet some of the ideas were a little over the top.
This sketch from the design session—inspired by a previous mockup from Trond—had a curvy tab shape that immediately resonated with everyone.
It also had one important additional design tweak—only render the tab shape for the active tab. Highlighting the active tab reduces visual noise and makes it easier to keep your place in the tabstrip.
The early curve shape tried on a few looks. At first it was too angular, then it was too curvy, then it was too short, then it was too tall and then (finally) it was just right.
It turns out that designing background tabs without a tab shape is a lot easier if you have a stable background to work with. Windows 7 has translucent windows of variable tints and Windows 8 has flat windows of variable color. This meant we needed to create our own stable background.
We went through several variations to ensure that the background tabs would be legible. First we tried creating a unified background block, but it seemed too heavy. We even thought about keeping background tab shapes and highlighting the active tab in some other way.
Eventually we decided on a background “fog” that would sit behind the tabs and in front of the window. Think of it as an interface sandwich—glass back, curvy-tab front with a delicious foggy center.
We also made sure that adding curves didn’t increase the width of the tabs taking up precious tabstrip real estate. And we removed the blank favicon placeholder for sites without favicons. A small tweak that frees up some extra room for the title.
Wrapping it up
Thank you to everyone who dedicated so much time and effort into making this happen.
If you want to know more about the people and process behind Firefox 29, Madhava has a good post with an overview.
I think the post-release glow is over now. Time to get back to making Firefox better.