Thu 11 Apr
Sometimes a designer doesn’t completely account for the reality of how a solution or product will be used, and instead designs around a set of requirements that seem to be fully representative of the problem at hand, but are actually narrower in scope. I call this designing for the ideal, because the designer typically chooses a band of requirements that play nicely with the favored solution — content that looks great or inputs that behave wonderfully within the design as it is being crafted. More often than not though, when the product is released into the real world the designer is in for a rude awakening.
There was a bit of designing for the ideal, I think, when the three major browsers — Safari, Chrome and Firefox — each started presenting a gallery of a user’s most visited Web pages within new tabs, instead of just a blank page or a user’s designated starting page. This feature has been around for a while now, but it’s remained broken for quite a long time.
The intended behavior of the feature is to visually represent the sites that the user is most likely to want to visit when faced with a blank tab. The critical benefit here is the visual representation; when the feature works, what you should see are pictures of your favorite sites in miniature, but still large enough that they’re simple to make them out at a glance and to click on quickly without requiring lots of precision mousing. This is what distinguishes them from bookmarks.
However, what happens in almost every instance is that the gallery is full of sites that cannot be rendered — blank thumbnails. I spend most of my time in Firefox and Chrome, and this is usually what I see.
The problem here, apparently, is that this feature either cannot or opts not to render thumbnails of secure sites, those whose URLs start with https. There is some sense to respecting the security of these sites by abstaining from thumbnailing them, but the result is that it essentially breaks a feature that is presented repeatedly and prominently to the user. That’s pretty high profile breakage.
Had the designers of this feature fully accounted for how it would be used instead of designing for the ideal, they could have come up with some alternative solution. Perhaps they could have generated a generic, innocuous thumbnail, maybe with large typography, to stand in for cases where no thumbnail could be created. Or they could simply omit secure sites from the gallery altogether, though that would have subverted the notion of a user’s “top sites” somewhat.
Actually, Safari has finally resolved this problem by just generating thumbnails for everything, producing a much more complete user experience.
That happened relatively recently, I believe. What surprises me is that all three browsers shipped this feature in essentially broken form, and it’s still broken in two of them. Sometimes, the lure of the ideal is too great, I guess.