Category Archives: User Interface (UI)

Firefox 57: faster and better

I’ve been using Firefox 57 for a few days now, since it was released on November 14. So far, I like what I see. Mozilla is hyping how much faster the browser is, and while it doesn’t feel a lot faster, it is indeed somewhat snappier. Given that Firefox had been getting noticeably sluggish in recent months, this is very welcome.

There are some major changes in Firefox 57: the user interface (UI) has had a major overhaul, using a new set of design guidelines called Photon. Most user interface elements will look familiar, but slightly different. Photon’s main objectives are to improve performance while making the interface consistent across various platforms. You’ll notice new icons throughout (including the main application icon), new positioning of interface elements, new animations, new appearance and behaviour for tabs, cleaned up menus, and new page loading animation.

The ‘new tab’ page has also been improved, and is more customizable. There are some new search engines to choose from, and Google is now the default for search. The on-page search feature now includes an option to highlight all matches on a page.

Numerous other changes in Firefox 57 were made to improve performance, including a new CSS engine called Stylo. CSS stands for Cascading Style Sheets, and it’s a set of standards used by web developers to define the style and layout of web sites. Stylo is faster than its predecessors because it uses available processing power more sensibly.

The upgrade process for Firefox 57 is no different than for earlier versions, and you don’t need to do anything special. As always, your existing Firefox profile (which contains your settings, bookmarks, login credentials, history, etc.) will be used by the new version. You may notice that your toolbar has been rearranged slightly, but that’s easy to fix using the Customize feature. You may also see blank spacer elements on either side of the address box, but these can be removed.

I noticed one possible problem: the contents of the address bar drop-down list occupy a narrow section in the middle of the list. The width of that section matches the width of the address box itself. This may have been done intentionally, but in my opinion it looks weird and severely limits the displayable length of addresses in the list.

With version 57, Firefox is no longer quite as sensitive about the use of Windows accessibility features. Previously, running the Windows On-Screen Keyboard would trigger Firefox to disable multi-process mode, resulting in reduced performance. That no longer happens in Firefox 57.

Firefox 57 also includes fixes for fifteen security vulnerabilities, so even if you’re not sure about the new user interface, you should really go and ahead and upgrade.

All in all, it’s good news for Firefox fans: Firefox 57 is faster, and has a cleaner, tighter, and more consistent user interface. I don’t see any reason to hold off on upgrading.

Firefox 57 may even be good enough to slow the recent wave of users, fed up with Firefox’s increasing bloat and decreasing performance, and feeling abandoned after Mozilla recently orphaned thousands of useful add-ons, who have been switching to Chrome and other browsers.

Study shows the reality of user skill levels

Jakob Nielsen is a renowned usability expert. He recently published the results of a study that looked at users’ ability to complete certain set tasks using a computer. The study, which was performed by the Nielsen Norman Group across thirty-three countries, draws some interesting conclusions.

The study reveals that “only 5% of the population has high computer-related abilities, and only a third of people can complete medium-complexity tasks.”

Implications

For the majority of computer users, accomplishing anything more complicated than the most basic tasks is a struggle. This is almost entirely due to poor user interface design. And the reason for this is simple: the people who create software are always at level 3. They create interfaces that seem perfectly logical and sensible from their own perspective, but which may appear hopelessly complicated to ordinary users.

Solutions

Nielsen’s recommendation to software developers is to “keep it extremely simple, or two thirds of the population can’t use your design.”

I’ve long argued for user interfaces that can be adjusted to the user’s skill level. Microsoft Word is one of the most popular programs of all time, and it’s used by people of all skill levels. But it’s complicated: less-skilled users encounter difficulties with Word frequently. I’d like to see a user skill level setting in Word. At its lowest level, advanced features would be disabled, and the user interface would be locked, thereby preventing accidental changes to the UI such as moving toolbars.

You may have noticed that the user interface for a typical smartphone application is much simpler than an equivalent application on Windows. A smartphone app’s UI uses less screen space, and compensates for the lack of a keyboard, but the net result is an overall simplification. Microsoft has even forced a new smartphone-style interface into Windows 10, with mixed results: while the O/S may be somewhat easier to use for many people, advanced users struggle to find what they need behind the scenes.

Clearly, if computers are ever to become truly easy to use, much work remains.

Ranking yourself

If you take the time to read Nielsen’s article (it’s about four pages), try to determine your skill level based on the criteria he provides. You may be surprised at the results.