In 2007, I was frustrated by how hard it is to find a webpage in a browser’s history, so I started a research project to solve that problem.I studied how to make use of the most memorable aspects of a webpage, created and tested paper and software prototypes, and published an ACM CHI paper in 2009.

What I did

My classmate and I first conducted interviews and retrospectives to learn how people remember webpages they’ve visited. Then we made and tested several paper prototypes to explore how we can utilize each memorable aspect of webpages. Finally, we created functional software prototypes as a Firefox extension, and conducted think aloud studies and AB testing to refine our solution. We received several research grants, two student research awards, and published a peer-reviewed paper and presented it at ACM CHI 2009.

Challenges, Lessons, Thoughts

Users are different than everyone you know and everyone they know.

That’s what a professor told our HCI class. I was surprised to find that this is true even for our small-scale studies. Several of our 47 participants didn’t know what a web browser is, while half didn’t know that web browsers have a history feature. This experience has always stuck in my mind, and reminds me that that being able to use something isn’t the same as understanding even the most basic parts of it, and a product should always be designed to allow the former without requiring the latter.

We presented results as thumbnails because our studies found that the layout and color composition of the page were very memorable and that recognition was much easier than recall. Our final design also uses a single search field instead of a separate control for each specifiable filter. This allowed users to use keywords for specific options (e.g. color:red), while minimizing the visual complexity for users who don’t use those options.

However, when presented with just a search box, many users were too intimidated to type any queries. Even when experienced users were presented with the choice to search or browse, they chose to browse half the time even though performing a search would have been faster. We asked the participants about this choice in the post-study interview, and one of them told us:

Searching takes too much effort, sometimes I just want to mindlessly browse until something catches my eye.

In other words, browsing was easier even though search was more efficient. Based on this feedback, we decided to show the most recently visited pages even before a search was performed. Not only does this give the user the option to browse, it also gave users the pages they most likely want without requiring any actions from them (based on prior study on recent pages being more likely to be revisited).

Because of technical limitations, we weren’t able to implement some features that would have made history even more useful:

  1. show history matches when typing into the location field, so this feature would be more discoverable.
  2. perform history search live as the user types, so the user didn’t feel like they have to commit to a search term

Fast-forward to 2012, all major browsers show history matches when typing into the location field, and Safari, Firefox, and Opera perform history search live as the user types.

Three iterations of paper prototypes

Final functional prototype as a firefox extension