Tab Management is Hard & Everyone Hates It

Scene: Small tech startup. Dude across from me leans over and wants to show me an article on his laptop screen. I lean over and start reading, but am then overcome with anxiety noticing he has about a hundred tabs open in his browser.

WHOA DUDE. How do you manage those tabs? The conversation following was one that opened my eyes dramatically to how each of us adapts to terrible user interface design. He told me that he not only has open tabs on this window, but several others. Also, different ones open on his mobile device, his other computer, and so on. After the initial shock, I took a small poll around the room. How many tabs does each person have open? Why? Do you ever go back to them? What happens if your browser crashes and you lose them all, do you go seek them out? Is it devastating? Does your work suffer??

I never stopped being curious about this. Since then, I’ve done a deep dive on why people hoard tabs (and I know I’m not the only one). Tab hoarding and tab anxiety are a huge problem with nearly everyone who uses their browser on a regular basis. Shocker — people feel incredibly anxious when considering that they might lose the context of what they were looking at. The dude in question would go through an article and open up every link in the article he wanted to read as he was reading it, with the assumption that he would have time to go back and read each and every one of those links. Spoiler alert — he never went back.

Big companies like Google are well aware that this has become more and more of an issue that users are interested in solving (Don’t get me started on Chrome’s new “tab grouping” feature… ugh). What makes tabs and windows so great? Why have we been using the same UI for so long when other technologies have advanced so far?

These inquiries have taken me on a path to finding out how our tech use affects our mental health. It is something that hits close to home for me. As I’ve spent more and more time being an OG in the tech community, I’ve unfortunately been subject to some serious tech PTSD. (That Slack knock-brush can make my heart rate go from normal to panic attack in less than a second).

Some of the key takeaways from my findings were these:

  1. Other folks need to keep tabs open for longer periods of time for research. For example, if you’re planning a trip and you’re pulling information from several different sites to compare experiences or prices that change daily or weekly.
  2. Many people use tabs as tasks lists. If the tab is open, it’s a task to be completed.
  3. Everyone is afraid of never being able to find the same website again.

The solutions people use… and why they find them less than ideal:

  1. Browser history: A long dark hallway that you can probe with a dim and flickering flashlight. No context, just a timeline and some links. The search feature is nice if you remember the link or site name, useless if you don’t.
  2. Browser extensions that save links in groups: Essentially, magnificent tombs that honor all the dead links you will never return to.
  3. Burn it all to the ground: Kill all your tabs frequently and with fervor. If you really want that site, you’ll manage to find it again. (I am in this camp! Burn, baby, burn). Downsides — you definitely can lose a link and never get back to it.

The theoretical solutions I’ve come up with that actually might be helpful:

  1. Auto-kill tabs: Since the majority of us never go back to look at those crusty old tabs, why not improve our visual digital landscape by auto-killing tabs every evening (or whatever time frame works best for different people)?

Thanks for reading, I appreciate your interest! If you have thoughts, ideas, or want to talk about how you manage tabs, please leave a comment :)

UX Designer, science enthusiast, relentless cynic, eternal optimist.