Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Google has just launched Extensions for the Chrome browser. It will be interesting to watch whether their approach to add-ons differs from ours, and in what ways.

The vibrant community of Firefox add-on developers has long been one of our greatest strengths, so Google’s addition of this feature is something of a challenge. I for one welcome the increased competition. It’s going to make us at Mozilla work harder to stay ahead, but the end result can only be good for users — more choices and higher quality software.

The Chrome extensions apparently don’t work on Mac yet, which is too bad; the Google Translate extension looks pretty useful.

We’re trying something new with the “Week in the Life” Test Pilot study. Instead of running just once per user, it will automatically recur about once every two months (60 days, to be precise) and run for one week each time. The idea is to let it recur over the course of a year, and see whether we can detect any long-term trends in the data that would indicate user habits changing over time. For instance, a lot of us who work in web browsers have a hunch that our users are using bookmarks less, and tabs more, compared to a few years ago. But does the data actually support this?

Because the “Week in the Life” study recurs, and because we never submit any data without the user’s explicit permission, we’ve got a potential user experience problem: Test Pilot is going to ask you whether you want to submit the data from the study every time it recurs. Do you want to submit the data? Do you want to submit the data? How about now? How about now, huh? How about that data, do you want to submit it?

Isn’t it annoying being asked the same question over and over again?

To mitigate this problem, I’ve added a new UI widget to the Test Pilot status page:

Menu with three choices: Ask me whether I want to submit my data; Always submit my data, and don't ask me about it; never submit my data, and don't ask me about it

The principle of “Don’t pester the user” is important, but so is the principle of “Make sure you have the user’s permission before doing anything with their data”. These principles are natural enemies. Finding a compromise between them is not easy! I know that my little drop-down menu is not a perfect solution. What do you think? Is it self-explanatory enough? Too wordy? Is there a better approach to this problem?

picture of me wearing old-timey test pilot goggles

After months of work, I’m proud to say that we’ve finally released the second Test Pilot study. It’s called “A Week in the Life of a Browser” (thanks to Jinghua for the catchy name). It is a “basic panel”, designed to run periodically and collect a wide range of basic data about browser performance: session lifetimes, crashes, bookmarks, downloads, searches, and so on. Here’s a detailed list of the information to be collected and some of the questions we hope to answer using this data.

“A Week in the Life” is broad, but shallow. It is meant to be complemented by other, more focused experiments that will probe more deeply into particular areas of interest.

To write “A Week in the Life”, it proved necessary to first release a new version of the Test Pilot extension, version 0.4. If you still have an older version, you’ll have to upgrade to run this study; otherwise, all you’ll see is a blank rectangle. (The upgrade should be offered to you automatically; you can also download the latest version here. )

Once you’ve got TP0.4 and the study is running, you’ll see something like this on your Test Pilot status page:

Graph of bookmarks and browser usage data over time

The top line on the graph shows how my number of bookmarks has changed over the past few days. The bottom bar shows when Firefox was being actively used (orange), when it was running but idle (yellow), and when it was not running (white). I would love to hear your feedback on this graph. Is it readable? Is it confusing? Is it useful? How can it be made better?

Bookmarks and running time/idle time are just two of the types of data collected in the “Week in the Life” study. Other data collected, but not yet graphed, includes:

  • How often do I do searches?
  • How many extensions do I have enabled or disabled, and how does that trend over time?
  • When and how often has Firefox crashed?

I hope to add these datasets to the graph soon.

There are also other types of data collection that we’d like to add to the study: for instance, how much memory is Firefox using? Being able to see at a glance how memory consumption changes along with the length of time the current Firefox session has been running could be very informative — not only for the researchers, but for the users as well.