Planet UX

Updates from the Firefox User Experience Team

February 04, 2017

Behind the Bikeshed: Rollie The Rapper, And Dollie The DogRollie started rapping many years ago, and since the beginning,...

Rollie The Rapper, And Dollie The Dog

Rollie started rapping many years ago, and since the beginning, Dollie was with him. In fact, when Rollie was born, Dollie was already a puppy. Dollie doesn’t talk, but with her expressions she can support Rollie before his concerts. Rollie already recorded many songs and videos, in which Dollie always appear. Dollie is also a theme in many of Rollie’s songs. She is the only dog Rollie ever had and besides of being close like siblings, Dollie is an inspiration for Rollie. Rollie wrote songs in which he talks of Dollie as his sister and he is going to sing it in his next concert. Now Rollie and Dollie doesn’t know if it’s a good idea to give milk to their dog.

February 04, 2017 11:45 AM


February 04, 2017 11:20 AM



February 04, 2017 11:20 AM

February 04, 2017 11:19 AM

January 05, 2017

Firefox UX: Project Prox?

At our recent Mozilla All Hands in Kona, HI, we announced the first project by the New Mobile Experience Team— Project Prox.

A few of us on stage talking about the project to the rest of the org. (Photo credit: Bryan Bell)

This is our first experiment in the Context Graph space. It’s a peek into everything we talked about earlier in the year and what that experience might look like for our users.

So what the heck is it?

Right now, Project Prox is taking shape as a mobile-first application on iOS. Starting with your location, we look for interesting places and events near you. That’s where our focus is at the moment — the here and now.

Yes, there are also other parts to this story too. But we’ve decided that focusing on this part of the “Traveller’s” journey right now makes the most sense. This was also something we touched on during our Design Sprint. If you’d like to know more (and haven’t already), you can read more about that process here.

The Map from Day 1 of our first Design Sprint

But I don’t have an iPhone… why is it only on iOS?

Believe it or not, “only make this for iOS” wasn’t one of our goals. But with all our constraints, we felt that the iOS platform was the best place to start. We definitely want to expand to other platforms in the future. This came down to a matter of resourcing, time constraints, and the usual like.

It’s important to call out our goal here: to solve real user/people problems. We want to understand the problem space and provide user value through iterative research and design.

Is this something Mozilla should be doing?

When you think about Mozilla, it’s pretty much synonymous with Firefox. But surely that’s not the only way we can carry out our mission, is it?

Our mission is to ensure the Internet is a global public resource, open and accessible to all.

How do we define “the Internet”? It takes so many different forms nowadays. We might know what it looks like today, but what about the future? How will technology influence the way we interact with “the Internet” then?

Not too long ago, Mobile was the future. Now, the web platform itself is growing. Chrome’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, and Progressive Web Apps give us the ability to create new, better experiences for the mobile Web.

If we want to ensure that the mobile Web is also “open and accessible to all”, we need to grow the influence of the mobile Web too. We need to be open to new technology and consider all the different ways people are (and will be) accessing this information.

Ok, so what does Project Prox look like?

As soon as you open the app, we want to provide immediate value. Our goal is to enable easier decisions about what to do or where to go next. So, without even knowing what to start searching for, we want to leave you with a satisfying day.

Summary Card — Design mock of our Home view

We can leverage the Open Web by surfacing relevant information in bite-sized chunks and offering a quick and easy way to find out more. There should not be requirements (like your social network) when you’re trying to get the most from the web.

This should work regardless of whom you’re connected to, because your social network shouldn’t be a prerequisite for getting the most from the web.

For those looking for a less immediate perspective, we also included a “Map View”. This was actually not something we tested in our Sprint. But the intention here was to offer an alternative view for users to give them more context about their surroundings. The goal here was to give users a better sense of spatial awareness.

“Map” — Design mock of an alternate view

Although we never finished it in time for Kona, we still got a lot of helpful feedback that is going to help us iterate and test this more for the next version.

Last but not least, notifications! If you’re nearby an event, we’ll notify you so that you can decide if you’re interested or not. The nuances of notifications makes this helluva lot trickier. But more than anything, we want to be useful without being annoying.

Notifications — Received from Project Prox while I was in the Hilton

Keep in mind, all of this is still a work-in-progress. We’re going to continue iterating with the help of our User Research team until we have something we’re happy with.

What’s next?

All in all, it’s just too early to tell. Kona was our first announcement but we’ve yet to actually launch the product. But we do have a clearer picture of what success might look like for us.

We’re calling this a “V1” — so there’s lots of work to be done still. We’re going to address some of the feedback and bring the product to a level we’re comfortable with calling an MVP before releasing to a larger population. And obviously, it works better in some cities versus others.

We need to get more data and gather more feedback. Improving the experience and releasing the updated product in a larger, denser city will be our next challenge. What we learn there will help us determine the appropriate next steps.

If you’re interested in giving feedback, please reach out!

Project Prox? was originally published in Firefox User Experience on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

January 05, 2017 09:17 PM

December 16, 2016

Firefox UX: User Study of Tracking Protection in Firefox Nightly

A recently landed feature in the experimental Firefox Nightly build integrates proactive tracking protection for Firefox Nightly users coupled with Do Not Track (DNT). With tracking protection active, ads and tracking technology are blocked before they reach the user’s browser. Subsequently, tracking ads and tracking pixels are not loaded by the browser and are not visible to the user. Further, by not loading the ads, tracking protection speeds up page load times.

NYTimes with Tracking Protection Off and Tracking Protection On.

In January 2015, the Firefox user research team conducted a three-day diary study with twelve demographically-diverse Firefox users in the US to understand their experience with Firefox Nightly’s implementation of Polaris tracking protection. For the diary study, participants were asked to download and install Firefox Nightly. Participants were instructed to turn on Tracking Protection in Firefox Nightly use it as their primary browser for the duration of the study. Participants responded to cues and direct questions while keeping notes of their daily online activities. After the diary study was completed, we conducted hour-long follow-up interviews with four of the participants via Vidyo.

We wanted to answer the following questions:

Findings and Observations

Definitions of Tracking and Tracking Protection
Most participants understood that tracking involved a third party using a tool or technology to identify unique browser users and to collect data about those unique users’ activity online. Participants provided different descriptions of how they believe tracking works and what information being tracked. Most participants used more general vocabulary to describe the more tangible aspects of tracking, such as tracking technologies track “my likes based on my website visits” (P15) or “what I might be interested in.” (P10) A small number of participants described the technical details of how online tracking works with a high level of accuracy.

Who Do Participants Believe is Tracking Them?
Overall, the majority of participants were able to describe at least one or many employers of tracking technology. While most participants did not describe the ecosystems of tracking and the relationships among companies involved in tracking, they did mention the piece of tracking technology that is most visible to them: targeted ads.

We also asked all the participants: “who do you believe is tracking you online?” Most participants mentioned Google, Facebook, or “marketing companies.” Two participants said the US government was engaged in tracking online activities

Benefits about Tracking Protection
Feeling more secure and private. The most commonly cited benefit among participants was the feeling of greater security and greater privacy. Although some participants who said this did not articulate specifically how tracking protection worked or made them feel more private and secure. Some participants clearly believe the tracking protection feature’s labeling and/or its visible effects (e.g., blocking the display of some ads).

Fewer ads, less clutter. Among the participants who noted the absence of targeted ads with tracking protection on generally viewed the absence of targeted ads as positive benefit. Most of these participants viewed ads as “clutter” (P2) on a site or as a “distraction” (P4) from their intended browsing activities. A few of these participants said that they have sometimes found targeted ads helpful, but also said they did not miss the ads when they were absent.

Faster page loading. Some participants believed tracking protection speeded up their browsing experience by blocking tracking technologies that took extra time to load on a page. This extra speed was seen as a benefit.
In our follow-up interviews, two participants believed that tracking protection slowed down their browsing because “the browser has to do extra work.” (P2). The other two participants described how tracking protection improved the speed of page loading.

Brings attention to the issue of tracking ads. A few participants noted how their relationship to and understanding of tracking changed over the course of the study. As P2 wrote, “It was very thought provoking because even though I did not use the internet much on my phone or computer I started to think about what a difference tracking can make…”

Relevant for mobile. Further, when asked about tracking protection on mobile, many participants said they hadn’t considered online tracking on mobile before. As P10 wrote, “None of my other devices give me the option of turning tracking on and off. And Firefox Nightly has definitely changed my perception of tracking because being that it gives me the option to turn it on and off it also makes me curious what the other browsers are using…It’s led me to various questions.”

Frustrations with Tracking Protection
Confusion when targeted ads disappeared. Some participants found the blank areas of missing content where targeted ads were blocked as visually jarring and confusing. As P8 said, “I did notice unusual behavior with page loading or missing content. My reaction to the missing content were usually were Ads would appear…I eventually closed the page because it was odd.” Eventually, participants who mentioned the blank content grew to like having targeted ads blocked.

Options/Preferences Labels unclear. Some participants did not understand the functionality of the opt-in selections in the Options/Preferences menu. The two options sound very similar: “Do Not Track” is a technical framework to send a signal to ad servers requesting to opt out of tracking and “Prevent sites from tracking me” refers to the Firefox Nightly tracking protection feature. For these users, these two selections are a distinction without a difference.

Preferences page for Privacy in Firefox Nightly with Tracking Protection activated.

Limited discoverability of interface and alerts. Participants were only alerted to the presence of the shield icon in day two of the study. Only one participant (P15) said he noticed the icon before it was pointed out in the instructions. Once they discovered it, participants did express an accurate understanding of the shield’s functionality to turn tracking protection on and off for the site.

Perceived video playback issues. Video playback, page loading issues, and crashing were issues participants attributed to tracking protection. In our subsequent tests, we demonstrated it is unlikely that tracking protection was the actual cause of instability or video playback issues. Regardless, likely because their attention was focused on the tracking protection feature as the subject of the study, tracking protection was perceived by some participants as the cause of these problems.

Additional Observations

A feature for more than a privacy-centric niche. We sometimes think that privacy protection tools are valuable to only a small portion of privacy-centric users (3–8% depending on the study) or general users at specific moments (for example, using the private browsing window). It is noteworthy how many of the participants found value in tracking protection.

Most participants in this study were not already focused on tracking and privacy-related issues. Tracking protection in Firefox Nightly exposed them to a tool that offered them a good deal more privacy than they were accustomed. Some participants responded positively and wanted to continue to have tracking protection as an option. A few other participants said they would like to use tracking protection after they perceived it becoming more stable. As P2 said, “I do plan to use tracking protection beyond this study because I liked the way things loaded better and I feel safer for some reason. I will not seek out additional tools because I don’t think I use the internet enough that I would need something like that.”

Invisible and visible. Participants focused almost exclusively on the visible manifestations of privacy such as targeted ads. During the follow-up interviews, we asked participants about the aspects of trackers that they could not see. P4 and P12 described ad networks and Google but did not fully convey the complex web of relationships among advertisers and tracking technology. Instead, participants only described the targeted ads they saw or did not see with tracking protection active. This more limited understanding makes a good deal of sense given the abstract nature of privacy concerns and the behind-the-scenes nature of tracking tools.

In order to improve the user experience of the tracking protection feature, we recommended at the time a few changes to the design:

More information about tracking protection.

Originally published at

User Study of Tracking Protection in Firefox Nightly was originally published in Firefox User Experience on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

December 16, 2016 05:39 PM

December 13, 2016

Firefox UX: User Study: New Firefox Privacy Permissions Panel

The Firefox User Research team will now be posting results from more of our smaller research studies. Our aim is to share our results and provide some insight into our research and product development process.

Imagine you just came home with a framed picture. You need to find a nearby hardware store so you can buy nails to hang your picture up on the wall. You open your web browser and navigate to a well-known hardware chain’s web site to find a nearby location. When you find the page with store locations, the hardware chains’ web site asks you to share your current location. Maybe you’re in a hurry…sharing your location in this case means you don’t have to type in your current address.

A well-known American hardware store chain’s locations around Portland, Oregon

With Firefox, we believe that personal information should never automatically be handed over to a website without the user’s permission. After all, a web browser should be more than an application that blindly accesses web sites. Firefox mediates between you and those web sites to protect your privacy and security. When we talk about this role at Mozilla, we talk about how Firefox is the user’s agent on the web. Among our goals for Firefox is the mission to protect our users from privacy and security risks and to help them make more informed decisions.

A Better Privacy Permissions Panel

From previous internal research, the Firefox product team was aware that Firefox’s current privacy panel UI is ambiguous to users. For a geolocation request in Firefox’s current implementation, users are presented with a drop-down box displaying a catalog of options:

Current Firefox (FF50) Privacy Permissions Panel

Further confounding the decision process for users is the “X” widget in the upper corner of the panel that dismisses the dialogue. What does dismissing the dialogue mean? How do users interpret the “X”? Do they believe that “X” means “don’t allow” location sharing ? Or do users believe they are deferring the choice and simply dismissing the dialogue to move on with their current task?

The Firefox privacy team wanted to improve the labeling and also the interactions in order to help Firefox users make a more informed decision. The team iterated on several designs that attempted to resolve these questions. The goals of the redesign were:

Version of the new Firefox Privacy Permissions Panel for Geolocation. This version has no “X” widget.

The team settled on a simpler design with better labeling and fewer interactions. However, questions remained about the possible usefulness of the “X” for users. What if users did not want to make a choice at that moment? What if they just wanted to make the dialogue go away and move on with their browsing? Would users be annoyed at being forced to make a choice? The team was unsure.

Two Studies

To evaluate the new design, the Firefox UX research team conducted two unmoderated, remote studies with 25 participants in the US, Canada, and the UK who selected Firefox as their primary web browser. Sessions were run between September 23, 2016 and November 1, 2016. For these initial studies, we focused on Firefox Desktop, not Firefox for Android or iOS. After downloading a special build of Firefox Nightly with the new privacy panel designs, participants followed a talk-aloud protocol to complete a series of tasks that triggered different privacy permissions panels. Participants’ test sessions were recorded and reviewed.

In each study, we divided participants into two groups. One group of participants used a special build of Firefox Nightly in which the new privacy permissions panel had the “X” widget; the other group had a version without the “X” widget.

Version of the new Privacy Permissions Panel with an “X” widget.

Study One

In the first study, participants were told to use Firefox Nightly to complete three primary tasks:

  1. Navigate to and find a store nearest them (triggering panel requesting geolocation).
  2. Revisit the site to observe participants’ reactions to being prompted again or not (depending on their selection of “Remember my decision”).
  3. Navigate to and follow the instructions to start a web-based video chat with an unspecified friend.

Here’s what we learned:

Study Two

We wanted to test the new geolocation privacy panel, but with an additional layer of complexity. Unlike the Starbucks geolocation prompt which has an obvious transactional purpose (it’s on the Find a Store page only), how do participants react to the geolocation prompt when the purpose isn’t obvious?

Again, participants were divided into two groups with a special version of Firefox Nightly: one group with the “X” widget and one without the “X” widget.

In the second study, participants were told to use Firefox Nightly to complete three primary tasks:

  1. Navigate to A panel is triggered on loading the site, but on the page, the transactional meaning is less clear.
  2. Navigate to and find a store nearest them (triggering panel requesting geolocation).
  3. We asked participants to locate their current settings for their privacy permissions.

Here’s what we learned:


In spite of making a quick decision, participants do understand in general terms what is being asked of them. A simple “Allow” or “Don’t Allow” interface appears to be adequate for almost all of our participants to make a clear decision.

Further, the “X” widget is redundant because for all participants it carried the meaning of “Don’t Allow sharing.” In expressing her desire to make the dialogue go away and say “no,” one participant provided an additional layer of meaning. Based on this observation and the lack of frustration expressed by participants, we feel confident that the “X” dismissal widget can be removed because fewer possible interactions make for an easier user experience.

In the decision process, the context about the relevance of geolocation provided by a website appears to be very important. Based on participants’ answers to follow-up questions, it’s clear why Starbucks is asking them for their location. Participants may not want to share their location with Starbucks for privacy reasons (in fact a small number of participants said regardless of value they never shared their geolocation for this reason), but the request is clear to them. By contrast, it’s not clear from the testimony of participants why T-Mobile is asking for their geolocation data.

Technologies like geolocation in the browser can be potentially useful to both sites and users. But these tools can be used as gimmicks or in a way that does not provide visible user value. Web sites and developers need to situate why they are asking for users’ location in a meaningful context. When websites aren’t providing context for requesting this information, they are adding an extraneous task for users to perform that increases frustration and potentially eroding trust in the web site’s purpose and intent.

For Further Study

Which UI elements do participants see? Why did so few participants notice or select the “Remember my decision” checkbox? How can we improve users’ understanding of how to make persistent decisions?

Since most participants could not locate with the permissions management interface, how can we improve it? Many participants chose the Options (on Windows) or Preferences (on OS X) to locate permissions management.

How can we better support users like the small number of participants in our two studies who never wish to share their location?

Revisit privacy permissions on Firefox for Android and iOS. Is the experience or choice different on a mobile browser? How can we improve the experience there?

User Study: New Firefox Privacy Permissions Panel was originally published in Firefox User Experience on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

December 13, 2016 11:49 PM

September 08, 2016

Firefox UX: A New Mobile Experience

What we’ve been up to so far

Our new Context Graph effort is steering us into some new and uncharted territory. But I can’t help but feel a sense of adventure because this opens up so many opportunities for new products and experiences — exciting times!

I spent the early part of my career working with a bunch of startups. “Move Fast and Break Things” was often the motto. Sometimes it was the right approach. Hammer away, and don’t be afraid to pivot later on. But stopping to question what or why we’re hammering is becoming more and more important.

Our team was tasked to create a New Mobile Experience. Here’s how we’ve been approaching it.

The Design Sprint

We started by reading The Sprint Book written by the folks at Google Ventures. “Sprint” writes about a five-day process for iterating on ideas and ultimately shipping products that solve real user problems. Additionally, the book has some great examples of other teams that have followed the same process.

To help us figure out what we should start hammering on, we decided to run our own sprint.

Since working remotely is fairly common at Mozilla, the first thing we wanted to do was get together in person. A prerequisite to running a sprint, but also just very helpful things to do for a new team. As luck would have it though, scheduling proved to be our first issue. Not a great start.

But there’s still a lot we needed to do before meeting. Our two main goals right now are:

  1. Familiarize ourselves with the Sprint process
  2. Share an understanding of what problems we’d like to solve

Remote Sprinting

Here’s where things get more interesting. Before meeting, we decided to try and run a modified sprint. Specifically, to running one remotely. Scary, I know. But the hope is that it will help us achieve the two main goals I mentioned earlier — to work together, and to learn.

Gemma, our Lead User Researcher, headed up this effort for us and designed with our first remote sprint. She also played the role of facilitator. You can read more about the process in her upcoming blog post (link to be posted soon!) but I’ll give a quick recap below.

At a high level, they’re two weeks long, requires a lot of video meetings (everyday to be exact), and involves a large amount of trust. Most days break down to a team working component followed by an individual homework assignment (to be completed before the following day).

Week 1

Day 1: Team — Select a high-level topic, Individual — Research and map out the problem space
Day 2: Team — Share research, choose a topic of focus, Individual — Sketch out ideas for solutions
Day 3: Individual — Cont’d sketching ideas for solutions (Crazy 8s style)
Day 4: Team — Quickly present own sketches, vote on the best ideas
Day 5: Team — Turn the “best idea” into a testable hypothesis, Smaller Team — Begin drafting a storyboard

Week 2

Day 6: Team — Share storyboard draft, give feedback, Smaller Team — Address feedback, or start on a prototype
Day 7: Team — Share the progress on the prototype, Smaller Team — Create, pilot and launch a user test
Day 8: Team — Watch user testing videos, capture learnings, Individuals — Brainstorm next steps
Day 9: Team — Evaluate the process, iterate on the prototype
Day 10: Team — Postmortem/follow up sprints

How Might We

The second goal here is to have a shared understanding of the goals and the problem spaces. It’s important for us to be research and data driven here so we created a template to help us out.

Since we’re distributed, it’s really helpful to have these posted somewhere. The team can refer back to them at any time, and they can be used to settle tie breakers. It provides a “North star” that everyone can always look to.

Adapting this from the Activity Stream Team and The Sprint Book, here’s how we’re phrasing our ideas in the form of a hypothesis statement:

We know this is a problem worth solving because
(user research/background research/other sources, attach if possible)
We believe that
(doing this/building this feature/creating this experience)
for (these people)
will achieve (this outcome).
We will know this is true when we see
(this user feedback/data).
The primary thing we want to be able to answer after user testing is if users
(used/understood/adopted, etc).

What’s next?

Gemma, our Lead User Researcher, will be publishing a post on designing and running remote sprints.

Ricardo, our Senior Interaction Designer, just facilitated our second remote sprint and has already been sharing his thoughts as a first time facilitator .

Next week, we’ll be meeting in person for a full Sprint Week.

This process has already inspired two new experiments we’ve started hacking on. The first, a clipboard application to help users gather links for later. The second, a notification manager to give users more control over disruptive notifications.

The way teams are distributed across timezones at Mozilla, I think it will always be helpful to find new ways of working. Perhaps some of our learnings here will be helpful for other teams too. We’ll continue to iterate on this process and look for ways to improve it. Each sprint, better than the last.

A New Mobile Experience was originally published in Firefox User Experience on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

September 08, 2016 07:45 PM

June 22, 2016

Firefox UX: What We Learned from the Government Digital Service Design Team

What We Learned from the Government Digital Service Design Team

Toward the end of Mozilla’s All-Hands Meeting in London last week, about a dozen members of the Firefox UX team paid a visit to the main office of the Government Digital Service (GDS). GDS is a department within the UK government whose mission is to “help government make digital services and information simpler, clearer and faster” and to “put users’ needs before the needs of government.” Over the course of an afternoon, we got to sit in on a GDS design team meeting, tour their office, and share some of Mozilla’s recent user research.

What we realized soon after arriving at GDS is that we have a lot in common with them. They, too, are a mission-driven organization. Moreover, they model many of the values and practices at the center of our work at Mozilla. There is much that we can learn from GDS, including:

Define “users” broadly and inclusively

GDS design team members work on a range of high-profile projects, like GOV.UK Verify. Verify is a way for any Internet user accessing a UK government service to confirm their identity online and therefore protect against fraud in transactions with government. GDS design team members are also working on numerous projects where government employees from other departments are the primary end-users. For instance, GDS is helping government employees access wi-fi and update the hardware they need to do their jobs more easily.

The variety of GDS projects is a helpful reminder that, in order to fulfill our mission, Mozilla must continue to think broadly and inclusively about who our users are. It can be tempting to think of our users as mostly people new to Firefox or as superusers of our products, but the group on which the future of Mozilla depends is much more diverse than that.

Create an organization of user research advocates

A poster from the GDS office that touts their collaborative approach

At GDS, user research is highly collaborative. Researchers are embedded in project teams. GDS non-researchers are active participants in research projects. It was telling that, as we listened to a room full of GDS design team members give quick updates on their work, nearly everyone mentioned some kind of recent user research activity, including journey mapping, lab testing, and research planning. To promote user research, GDS maintains numerous resources, which can be accessed from their User Research blog, including monthly research training days to prepare “research buddies.”

In many organizations, user research (if it exists at all) is collaborative far more in spirit than in practice. GDS’ active dedication to involving designers and non-designers alike in their research is a valuable reminder to continue to explore ways in which we can scale our user research efforts and create an organization of research advocates.

Share your work

Both GDS and Mozilla value openness and transparency in what we do, as the nature of our visit to the GDS office made clear. We also learned that many GDS team members dedicate time to sharing their work, in-person, outside of government, and even outside of the UK. For example, we heard about individuals presenting their work at conferences and other meetups. It was striking to hear these activities described with the same attention and priority as other work, rather than as a footnote or obligation tacked onto one’s busy week.

At Mozilla, because of the volume of projects underway, it can be easy to de-prioritize sharing research practices and findings beyond our community. Our visit to GDS was an inspiring reminder that dissemination is an important means of reflecting and improving upon our work.

In summary

GDS’ 7 tenets for building better services

Though on the surface GDS and Mozilla are working in different contexts, our two organizations share many values. We are both committed to the overarching goal of digital transformation. We believe in challenging the status quo to make vital resources–government and the internet–more accessible and useful to people. At GDS, we found a peer group as well as an exemplary team who practice everyday putting users first.

Thank you to Alex Torrance of GDS for hosting us.

What We Learned from the Government Digital Service Design Team was originally published in Firefox User Experience on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

June 22, 2016 02:34 PM

June 03, 2016

Firefox UX: Notification Overload and User Control

Web browser users do more than browse and search. They employ detailed, sophisticated, and mentally engrossing workflows to complete tasks online. While engaged in these concentrated activities, we learned that users’ attention is sometimes disrupted by “unimportant” or unwanted interruptions from smartphone and OS-based notifications. Based on our research in Germany, we learned what “important” notifications mean for some users and offer suggestions on how applications and services can provide users more control over notifications.

Picking up from last year’s Task Continuity research, the Firefox User Research team is focusing its efforts in 2016 on a multi-nation, mixed-method study of how people complete common tasks on the web; a project we are calling “workflows.” For our study, we’ve defined workflows as:

A habitual, frequently employed set of discrete steps that users build into a larger activity. Users employ the tools at hand with which they are familiar (e.g., tabs, bookmarks, screenshots) to achieve a goal. Workflows can exist across multiple devices, across noncontinuous spans of time, and contain multiple decisions within them.

The first phase of our workflows research studied participants in Germany. We will post a more detailed summary of those findings soon.

Following other studies, one of the assumptions guiding our study is that some workflows induce an engrossing, satisfying state in the user called “flow.” We learned that many of our eleven German participants described this flow state when engaging in activities such as travel planning or comparison shopping. Additionally, some participants’ workflows were so habitual and flow-inducing that it was difficult for them articulate the discrete steps.

Flow can be an indicator of a strong, user-centered experience. But flow can also be fragile. Flow is easily disrupted by interruptions within the task and outside the task. Disruptions led us to explore a topic that we had not anticipated in our planning: how push notifications disrupt workflows. During interviews some participants mentioned their frustration with notifications. Also, our interviews were frequently interrupted by notifications coming from multiple devices–which participants quickly grabbed, silenced, and put away.

Mobile and desktop notifications are designed to inform users (visually, audibly, haptically) of various events such as emails, calendar appointments, and social media replies. Notifications are designed to interrupt–but some interruptions can be beneficial. For example, if you are engrossed in writing an email to a colleague and receive a notification for your upcoming doctor visit, that notification is likely very helpful. Unfortunately for some of our participants, many notifications are unwanted or unimportant. For some, notifications are a feature they believe they have limited control over in terms of frequency and relevance.

We did not study the number of notifications participants received (one study found its participants received 63.4 notifications daily on average), but some participants complained about the perceived quantity of notifications in their lives. At least some of our participants experienced notification overload.

One of our Munich participants was an abitur student who believed he had lost control over notifications from Facebook. He uses Facebook to keep up with upcoming events that interest him. Unfortunately, he also received a great many notifications that were “annoying” and “frustrating.” As he explains:

For example, when friends of mine are at a party [and they like the venue on Facebook] and they get a free drink, then the event organizer from the club can log in on the Facebook account of a friend of mine, and then invite all his friends, and they all get an invitation to come to the club and get a free drink. And that is the thing with Facebook … people get all these notifications…

This participant blamed himself for the intrusive notifications because “I do want notifications for interesting events, but I don’t want to be invited to like websites from other people.” So, he wants some notifications–but definitely not others. The challenge for us is to help him control what is “interesting.”

Some participants were happy with the control they had over their notifications because they believe they had chosen them. For example, one of our participants tinkered with IOT devices around his house. During our interview, he received multiple notifications on his iPhone and iPad, but he accepted them because he believed that he had set them up and therefore had control over them. Another participant in Munich received constant notifications from the N24 news app on her iPhone. She accepted the notifications by treating them as a simple newsfeed but it was not a fully satisfying relationship. As she said, “Sometimes [the notifications] interrupt. It’s just a bit bothersome, but on the other hand I want to be informed.”

Ultimately, what we learned from participants is that they were frustrated (or not) by the level of control they have over notifications. If users are frustrated or in a compromised relationship with notifications, it means the control they have over them is not discoverable or granular enough. Control over notifications on the two major mobile OSes varies, but for both the interface is buried at the preferences level and is limited.

In the battle for users’ attention, many apps and sites are incentivized to overload users with notifications to increase marketing and engagement. Unfortunately, the notification management preferences in mobile OSes generally assume that a user either wants all notifications from an app or none at all. Preferences do not provide a more granular control UI over the kinds of notifications users receive and when they receive them.

Desktop browsers are implementing push notifications from sites the browser user subscribes to. The w3c Push API spec follows this same all-or-nothing approach to notification management. The user’s control over notifications is limited simply to subscribing to all notifications from specific sites and unsubscribing to notifications from specific sites. Many sites are not incentivized to provide users with a greater level of control. Facebook does offer this level of control, but it is buried deep in settings, requires users to select or deselect many choices, and offers no control over time of day.

As we add notifications to more kinds of applications beyond operating systems, users need additional controls over notifications they receive. As some studies show, even relevant notifications can disrupt attention and flow. It is our responsibility to help users have control over their attention and focus. There must be a middle space of control over notifications beyond all or nothing–or at best buried and only partial control. Perhaps it is the role of the browser as user agent to provide some of this additional support to users?

Based on our study, we learned that users are working with a very limited set of tools to control notifications. In future phases of this study, we plan to study more what control means in different countries and contexts. We are especially interested in exploring how the notion of control may be culturally influenced.

Thanks to Gemma Petrie, Sharon Bautista, and Madhava Enros for their suggestions for this post.

Notification Overload and User Control was originally published in Firefox User Experience on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

June 03, 2016 09:45 PM