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. Many people NEVER close tabs. Like, never. Until the browser breaks, those tabs will remain forever open in state not quite alive and not quite dead.

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

  1. Bookmarks: Great to save a link, horrible experience when trying to find that link again. The context of the link is totally lost. Also — you have to physically do it, the software is not smart or helpful.

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

  1. A better history: How might we improve browser history to make it easier to find a link you once visited? How could we group sites together in a thoughtful way that would help users be more effective with research or task completion?

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.