tabbing behaviour

Posted in programmer productivity, Technology trends at 5:09 pm by ducky

I did a very quick, informal survey on how people use tabs when looking at Web search results. Some people immediately open all the search results that look interesting in new tabs, then explore them one by one (“open-parallel). Others open one result in a new tab, explore it, go back to the search page, then open the second result in another tab, etc. (“open-sequentially”). Note that the “open-sequential” people can have lots of tabs open at a time, they just open them one by one.

To clarify, open-parallel means control-clicking on the URL for result #1, then on result #2, then on #3, then on #4, and only THEN and switching to the tab for #1, examining it, switching to the tab for #2, etc.  Open-sequential means control-clicking on the URL for result #1, switching to the tab for #1, examining #1, switching to the search results page, control-clicking on #2, switching to the tab for #2, examining #2, switching to the search results page, etc.

I was surprised to find that the people who had been in the US in the early 2000’s were far more likely to use the open-parallel strategy. There was an even stronger correlation with geekdom: all of the geeks used the open-parallel, and only two of the non-geeks did.

Open-parallel Open-sequential
Citizenship Where in early 00’s? Geek? Citizenship Where in early 00’s? Geek?
US Working/studying in US Y Canada Working/studying in Canada N
US Working in US Y US Studying in US N
US/Canada Studying in US Y Canada Studying in Canada N
Canada Studying/working in US Y Canada Studying in US N
Australia Working in Australia(?) Y Netherlands Working in Europe(?) N
US/Canada Working in US Y Canada University in Canada N
Canada Working in Canada sort-of Canada University in Canada N
US University in US N
India University in US N

Notes on the survey:

  1. The subject pool is not representative of the general propulation: everyone who answered lives or lived at my former dorm at UBC, has a bachelor’s degree, and all but one have an advanced degree or are working on one.
  2. I classified people as geeks if they had had Linux on at least one of their computers and/or had worked in the IT industry. The person with the “sort-of” in the geek column doesn’t qualify on any of those counts, but was a minor Internet celebrity in the mid 90s.

What does this mean?

What does this mean? I’m not sure, but I have a few ideas:

  • I suspect that the geeks are more likely to have used a browser with modern tabbing behaviour much earlier, so have had more years to adapt their strategies. (Internet Explorer got modern tabbing behaviour in 2006; Mozilla/Firefox got it in 2001.)
  • One of the benefits of the open-parallel strategy is that pages can load in the background. Maybe in 2001, Web access was slower enough that this was important and relevant. Maybe it’s not that the geeks have been using tabs longer, but that they started using tabs when the Internet was slow.
  • It might be that the geeks do more Web surfing than the non-geeks, so have spent more time refining their Internet behaviour.


  1. Vince said,

    July 21, 2008 at 11:23 pm

    I have 50+ tabs open right now. I never get that number down to single digits and I never close Firefox. I just have stuff loaded that I intend to get back to and read, and even when I do go back to them, those tabs simply get replaced with new ones.

    I open search results in new tabs for several reasons. First, for speed, in that, as you mentioned, the pages can load in the background simultaneously. Second, it saves on mouse clicks: no need to click “back” repeatedly, especially if you click around on a page and then need to go back. Also, when you click “back”, you have to remember where you left off, plus you have to wait for the page to render (or reload in some cases). Finally, when I’m looking for something, it is often the case that no single page is what I’m looking for, and I need to combine information between multiple pages, which requires that the pages be open simultaneously for comparison purposes.

    The newish Picasa Web Albums interface really annoys me in that it forces you into a serial browsing method. When you view an album in thumbnail view, you can’t open the photos in new tabs to zoom in on them. The original interface allowed this, but I guess it was a trade off with the dynamic loading of the thumbnails. Now, if I want to zoom in, I have to click on it, and then click back, and often you don’t get the same viewport when you return to the thumbnail view, so you have to scroll around to find where you left off. Very annoying interface.

    Before tabbed browsers existed, I simply opened links in new windows, which led to an excessive number of windows open and a lot of alt-tabbing.

  2. ducky said,

    July 22, 2008 at 8:55 am

    Vince — sounds like you keep the pattern going: geek and use open-parallel. 🙂

  3. Catherine said,

    July 22, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    I don’t know that I met your geek requirement, but I work in software/data, have an advanced degree, was educated in the US and currently reside in the US. I use multiple tabs. I’m usually doing a few unrelated tasks, each tab represents that. Also one for mail, one for my feed reader and one for my calendar. I usually have <10 tabs. However, I know my husband (bona-fide geek, no degree, resides in US) doesn’t like tabs and launches a new FF each click. But he also doesn’t have a task bar and he’s remapped his keys for his own comfort. Oh, and he likes emacs not vi – so there’s no accounting for taste.

  4. ducky said,

    July 22, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    An email discussion with Catherine led me to clarify my posting slightly — the difference is not in whether you have multiple tabs open at any one time — most people seem to do that. It’s whether or not you open search results in parallel or sequentially. Catherine is a sequential tabber.

  5. jeffp said,

    August 7, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    My geek credentials are at serious risk here, but…

    First off, I think I use both sequential and serial tabbing, depending on the situation. In the morning, I have firefox open a slew of tabs all at once – from the bookmarks menu – and go through them to take care of all the “do it in the morning tasks”.

    When searching with google, I typically open any potentially interesting hit in a new tab and view it immediately, discarding it if it turns out to be unrelated or uninteresting. But if something is interesting I can – and do – leave the tab open to come back to it, so I regularly leave multiple tabs open when doing something complicated, like comparing different products, or sources of information about the same thing.

    And I regularly use tabs to hold my place – so I can avoid using the back button to get back to something quickly.

    But that being said, I know I fail as a geek because I see the references here to opening all search results in separate tabs at once and have no idea how to do that in firefox. There’s no menu choice to do that operation. At least, not that I am aware of.

    I’ll leave my geek badge at the door…

  6. ducky said,

    August 7, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    JeffP —

    By “at once”, I meant “before looking at any of the other tabs”. Hold down the control key, go click, click, click, click, click, open result #1, examine, open result #2, examine, etc.

    This is different from control-click, examine, go back to search results page, control-click on #2, examine #2, etc.

    I’ll try to modify the text (*again*) to try and make clear what I’m talking about…

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    October 20, 2008 at 4:16 pm

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