Web 2.0 Expo: Mozilla's UI designer talks shop

Mozilla's Aza Raskin talks to attendees of the Web 2.0 Expo about designing Firefox and other apps, and how it's up to them to do some of the heavy lifting.

Mozilla Labs' Aza Raskin talks about crowd-sourcing user design. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--Aza Raskin, head of user experience for Mozilla Labs, could be considered the Doogie Howser of the Web design world.

At the age of 25, he's heading up Ubiquity--one of Mozilla's most experimental projects, along with collaborating on Weave and the concept series. This was after Raskin--the son of the late Apple Macintosh designer Jef Raskin--discontinued his pursuit of a Ph.D. to found Humanized, the company that brought him to Mozilla.

However, at a talk about design at the Web 2.0 Expo, Raskin played down his work on some of Mozilla's latest projects, instead using it as a platform to showcase why the company needs more design help from those who can spare it. "For every one employee, we have 1.2 million users," he said. Of those, about 1,000 contribute to Firefox's code, with another 100,000 or so who do the heavy testing.

But of those large numbers, few have offered design help. And in Raskin's mind, design is something that will help drive Firefox's user interface, and the UIs of other Mozilla products, into new territories. "Right now, we have two designers, so if people want to get involved, there's an ample opportunity...the work we do here can affect one of every five people on the Web."

Raskin was referring to Firefox's install base, which continues to grow, despite new and aggressive browser releases from Google, Microsoft, and Apple, all within the past year. In fact, as of this week, Firefox 3 became the most popular browser in Europe, beating out the last three releases of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, which had previously dominated the region.

But what kinds of design is Mozilla looking to improve? Raskin highlighted tabs, which he says are fantastic when only a few are open. But they do a poor job of scaling, he said--especially once you reach the threshold of having close to a dozen tabs open in a single browser window. "I think we're going to see a lot of innovation there."

However, that innovation may not be coming from Mozilla Labs, which shuttered its Chromatabs project, focused on a browser add-on that would give each tab its own color, based on the site's identity.

Instead, the company has largely put the onus on third-party developers ( or even competitors ) to change the way we use them and build some of the best ideas into new releases.

The new page for frequently visited sites will show you which sites you tend to visit during various times of day. It also gives users the option to search and view content from each of those sites. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Raskin also highlighted advancements in improving the browser's memory of what you've been doing, making it easier to do simple tasks by using that information. To illustrate the point, he showed off Mozilla's latest efforts in enhancing what users see when firing up their browser or opening up a new tab. Users will soon have a page that remembers the last few sites you were using and pulls in the latest items from each RSS feed.

It's no Netvibes, though. Instead, it will remember when you use each site during the day, then custom-tailor that page to show only those sites. As Raskin described it, this will keep you from seeing some of the "late night" sites you visit when firing up your browser to read news stories and check e-mail in the morning.

So what about Firefox's next big redesign? It received a few subtle tweaks in version 3, but nothing groundbreaking outside of making the back button almost twice the size as the forward button.

With Raskin at the helm, many of the biggest UI changes could be simply embedding things that used to be buttons deeper within the application. The latest proof of that is one of Mozilla Labs' recent efforts, Ubiquity, which is effectively a command line interface that can learn new site-specific shortcuts. It can also be called up and dismissed in an instant.

Is this going to be the next way we navigate the Web, though? Probably not, but in Raskin's mind, it's a design trend to build more functionality around the sites we use every day.

Update: This post has been corrected with Raskin's correct age which is 25 (not 24) as well as his role in specific Mozilla projects.

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Software
About the author

Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.

 

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