I saw a great presentation yesterday by Patrick Dubroy, who presented some preliminary results from his research on how people use tabs in the real world.

[UPDATED: You can now read Patrick’s whole presentation on his blog.]

The sample size was small (22 people) so we should be cautious about any conclusions we draw from this study, but it’s pretty exciting to have any real scientific data at all on this question (as opposed to anecdotes, personal observations, etc.) The study also points in some exciting directions for further research.

The big thing I took away from Patrick’s presentation was that among heavy web users, tabs are enabling new styles of browsing behavior that rely less on bookmarking and less on the back button. According to Patrick, the back button is getting used less and less as the years go by, and for all but two of his test subjects, switching tabs was a more common action than hitting “back”.

This change seems to coincide with the rise of web applications, where a user might spend a long time interacting with data on a single page. Web applications live comfortably in tabs (I always keep gmail open in my leftmost tab, for instance) but did tabbed browsers help popularize web applications, or did web applications help popularize tabbed browsing, or neither?

One anecdote from the presentation really stuck with me: apparently some users love opening multiple links in separate tabs, but they use a laborious manual workaround to do so, because they don’t know about command (or control) -clicking a link to open it in a new tab. This tells me that the feature needs to be more discoverable somehow.