Tabbed Browsing: Everyone uses it now, right? Wrong.

When Mozilla Firefox 2.0 rolled out tabbed browsing in October 2006, it was the reason many of us switched from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and other browsers. That was four years ago, and now all major browsers feature tabs.

If, like me, the web is an integral part of your life, it’s painful to imagine giving up tabbed browsing. But that’s not the case for everyone. A large percentage use tabs infrequently or not at all. How large? That’s what I sought to learn.

Methodology

I’m not a trained researcher, so this was an illuminating exercise. First, I created a simple form using Google Docs. After a brief description of tabbed browsing, the form had three questions, only the first of which was mandatory:

  1. Do you use tabbed browsing?
  2. Optional: How old are you?
  3. Optional: What web browser do you use, primarily?

I sought to reduce selection bias by promoting the survey within a group of colleagues and family members that I felt represented a range of computer literacy, as well as on Facebook, where my “friends” run the gamut from elementary-school friends to in-laws. I intentionally did not post a link to the survey on Twitter, because my Twitter stream is heavily biased toward technologists.

I had 46 respondents. So, not a large sampling, but enough to tell a story.

Despite my attempts, there may still be a bias toward the more computer literate: Only 40% of respondents use Internet Explorer as their primary web browser, which is below the average in most studies. Assuming non-IE users are more computer literate, this could represent a slight bias.

Of those participants who gave their age (which was most of them), the range was 21 to 65 years old. Most were in their 30s.

Results

Adoption of tabbed browsing among all survey participants

Among all participants, 76% use tabbed browsing “all the time,” 15% “some of the time” and 11% never use it or don’t know what it is. I believe the participants who use tabs “some of the time” probably veer closer to “never” than “always.” So another way of putting this is that 26% of web users do not fully use or understand tabbed browsing.

Adoption of tabbed browsing among Internet Explorer users.

When you break down the results by browser choice, the results are not surprising: Internet Explorer users use tabs less frequently. 58% use tabbed browsing “all the time,” 26% “some of the time” and 16% never use it or don’t know what it is. In other words, 42% of Internet Explorer users do not fully use or understand tabbed browsing.

I think this is because (a) Internet Explorer has not featured tabbed browsing until relatively recently; (b) software installed at the enterprise level tends to be a version or two behind, so people who do most of their web surfing at work are stuck with whatever their IT department permits (making tabs an even more recent phenomenon); and (c) users who download and install alternatives to Internet Explorer are likely to be more computer literate than users who stick with IE.

Adoption of tabbed browsing among Firefox users.

Interestingly, the exact same number of Firefox and IE users responded to the survey (19 each). So this is a good comparison. 79% of Firefox users use tabbed browsing “all the time,” 11% “some of the time” and 11% never use it or don’t know what it is. In other words, 22% of Firefox users do not fully use or understand tabbed browsing. This is a bit surprising considering that tabs are what made Firefox’s reputation as an IE-killer, but I think these figures show how mainstream Firefox is becoming. Not everyone who uses Firefox is a computer geek.

Adoption of tabbed browsing among Safari users.
Adoption of tabbed browsing among Google Chrome users.

I had only five Safari users, and three Chrome users. All of them said they use tabs “all of the time.”

A note about age

I would have guessed that most of the users who do not use tabs are older than those who do. Not quite the case. The two oldest participants stated they do use tabs “some of the time.” Those who never use tabs ranged in age from 33 to 56. Of the eight participants who declined to state their age (who are likely to be older, I’m guessing), seven said they use tabs “all the time” and one “some of the time.”

What does it all mean?

I think many web developers take a lot for granted about their audience. Things that seem as natural as breathing to some are still foreign concepts to others. Users are slow to adopt new technology. Websites aiming for a mass audience need to constantly check their assumptions.

As for this brief stint wearing my market-research hat? It was fun, but clearly more research is needed.  

 

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3 thoughts on “Tabbed Browsing: Everyone uses it now, right? Wrong.

  1. I would imagine that browsing habits would lead to either the use or non-use of tabs… generally I use tabs because I know I may click on a link from a story to find out more info about something specific, and then I’ll find myself doing the same thing on that story and on and on.
    You’d wonder if a user knows any keyboard shortcuts which makes utilizing tabs much easier.
    What a user does online I believe will directly result in HOW a user does it. I do frequent comparison tasks online (services, flights, etc.) This sort of use almost requires tabs.
    Another aspect is that many times when a site will open many sites at once, especially doing a mass search, it will do so in new windows. Not new tabs. The perpetuation of the use of opening a new window will continue the slower adoption of tabs.

  2. “The perpetuation of the use of opening a new window will continue the slower adoption of tabs.” I agree! Browser-makers can do more to encourage the use of tabs.

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