Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Thinking About Tabs

OK. I am back to designing interfaces. Well, interaction design more than UI design since I am concentrating on the larger scale sets of content and interaction rather than the detailed UI artifacts on the page.

One thing I am learning this time around is that I have a proclivity for tabs. But tabs are dangerous. Let me explain.

Tabs are an easy way out. They let you create multiple "views" or "panels" at an equal level and tie them together with the tabs. For example, Facebook (with Home / Profile / Find Friends), Yahoo Shopping, or — most famously — Amazon. Of course, Amazon has dropped their tabs. But the intent is still present in their lefthand pull-right menus.

The key to a tabbed interface is that it lets the user decide between multiple functions or views. The advantage is that the tabs stay present so the user can navigate easily between functions. The disadvantage is that it is up to the user to decide; the interface does not promote a specific priority or process.

Which is what makes tabs dangerous. It is too easy for the designer to accede responsibility for guiding the user and say disingenuously "the user gets to decide".

Tabs make sense when dealing with a large inventory of heterogeneous objects. In this situation the tabs act as a classification mechanism. But what if the content is not evenly distributed or readily partitioned? Then the tabs are simply a way to "chunk" a large set of functions with little regard for their natural affinities (c.f. the facebook tabs).

While working on my current design project, I discovered that I often fall back on tabs as a default technique for organizing disparate information and controls. The consequence is that I tend to get lazy and not think through the other possible options.

Even if done well, tabs tend to reinforce ingrained ways of viewing the content, without thinking too deeply about the alternatives. Using tabs feels safe, but it can unnecessarily fragment the workspace, separating functions the user may want to compare or contrast. (Jakob Nielsen has an excellent essay on this topic.)

So, if tabs are not the answer, what are the alternatives? Perhaps it might serve us well to think about why tabs so readily come to mind. I suspect it is historical. The web started as a hypertext delivery system, where the text was largely static. There were forms, but little other interactivity. Much of the "early days" of the web were focused on determining best how to:

  • Structure the content
  • Represent the structure as navigation
Menu bars, navigation menus, and ultimately tabs became essential components of the web experience and designer's toolkit. However, as we move into Web 2.0 and the predominance of scripting languages, flash, and HTML v5, the web is not only interactive, it becomes an application of it own.

Although there is still a lot of text and pictures where navigation plays a role, there is a lot more interaction involved and the design must help direct users through processes, not just content. It is unclear that what has been learned from years of application interface design has yet to be effectively integrated in web interface design.

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