Layers

I liked just about everything about this Tim Bray post from a couple of days ago. It’s called “Browser Sedimentation,” and it’s about the layers of non-content (sometimes called “chrome”) that have built up in today’s browsers. Here’s what my Safari looks like most of the time:

Safari layers

Title bar, tool bar, bookmarks bar, tab bar. The main difference between this browser sediment and river sediment is that these layers accumulate at the top instead of the bottom.1

The one thing I sort of disagree with is this:

The problem is that people like me (and I bet most readers here) can’t even see that there’s a jumble; the sediments of infrastructure are clearly separated in our understanding and thus our eyes. But occasionally I get a flash of how it must look to civilian eyes, and it doesn’t make me happy.

As one of his commenters, Ben Meadowcroft, said, the browsers of non-expert users usually have even more layers. I was reminded of this bit from Mike Lacher’s epic tale from McSweeney’s on fixing a non-expert’s computer:

With a resounding click he opened Internet Explorer 6 and gazed deep into its depths, past the Yahoo toolbar, the MSN toolbar, the Ask.com toolbar, and the AOL toolbar. And then did he see, at long last, that The Google did load.

My mom’s computer has some awful, branded version of Internet Explorer running on it, and the toolbars take up so much of the window it feels like you’re looking at the web between the slats of Venetian blinds. But she likes all that crap. When I’ve suggested getting rid of some of the tool bars, she’s been horrified; it wouldn’t be her familiar web experience without them.

I’ve always thought this was the real story behind the software that John Gruber highlights in his occasional User Interface of the Week posts. It’s not so much that the designers of these applications have no taste, it’s that their users have no taste. There’s something about an ugly, cluttered user interface that says “computer” to the great majority of users out there.


  1. Except for the status bar, which I forgot to mention. 


6 Responses to “Layers”

  1. Carl says:

    Home button? I haven’t used a Home button since whenever Safari let you customize the toolbar and I turned it off. I’m not even sure what the point of the Home button is besides being a bookmark with a built in keyboard shortcut.

    I also don’t understand people who use the Google.com homepage. I have no idea what kind of widgets or doodles they have there. I haven’t used it since web browsers got a search box (or better an omnibox, like Chrome).

  2. u says:

    I’m not even sure what the point of the Home button is besides being a bookmark with a built in keyboard shortcut.

    I like it for that reason. (Having toolbar button in addition to shortcut)

  3. Jaspar Muir says:

    There’s something about an ugly, cluttered user interface that says “computer” to the great majority of users out there.

    Back in the dark old days before Apple seized the masses with the iPhone and iPad, I’d be inclined to agree. But fortunately there’s evidence stacking up now that mainstream users like the purposeful minimalism of iOS. Thank goodness.

    I know a few people who prefer their particular pile of cruft, too, but they’re that way about everything and, yes, fairly old. Seems like the generational shift from horse to car all over again. John Siracusa’s talked about this several times on Hypercritical from his background in the nascent eBook industry years before they took off.

    @Carl

    That’s what the favourites menu is about. I have nine bookmarks in there, each mapped to Command + a number key (no zero as that’s for default text size), most of them being bookmarklets like Add to Instapaper and Quix. Since I can remember them all, I browse without the favourites bar visible. Best of both worlds to me.

  4. Macdrifter says:

    We now live inside Idiocracy. http://db.tt/UpMPp2Qe

  5. James says:

    Seems every time you install an update to Flash, or some other plugin, or shareware there is a checkbox to also install some toolbar as well. The reason for this is clearly marketing gone astray along with payments made by the marketing departments to the shareware authors, Adobe, etc.

    The average user doesn’t even read the dialog box and just installs yet another toolbar to their browser. I have witnessed some users with 4-5 toolbars as well as a boatload of spyware/malware by the time I get to fix their PC. I saw one with literally 10 toolbars! There was only a few inches of usable browser screen left. This individual didn’t understand it at all and thought it was supposed to be like that. I was able to remove all but the google toolbar and he was good to go.

    All the major browsers are starting to move towards a slimmed down user interface, reducing and removing toolbars, etc. Chrome has a single addressbar that includes search within the addressbar. IE9 does a similar thing. So a tab bar, addressbar w/a few button icons, and a favorites / bookmarks bar and it’s pretty tiny at the top.

    The bigger issue is Microsoft vulnerabilities and users who don’t read before they click and software distributors that include addon toolbars and by default have them selected for installation.

  6. Carl says:

    @Jaspar

    I’m the same way. For me, Cmd-1 is a Wikipedia bookmarklet, -2 is Send to Instapaper, etc. I use those shortcuts so often I can’t switch to Chrome, because it doesn’t let you do that. For real sites (as opposed to bookmarklets), I just do Cmd-L then type the first couple letters and let autocomplete take over.