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Firefox: To Configure Or Not To Configure

An interesting item came down the pike yesterday by way of Katherine Noyes on PCWorld. It seems that Alex Limi, a project design strategist at Mozilla, has blogged some concerns he has over Firefox being too configurable. It appears he’s become aware that it “…ships with many options that will render the browser unusable to most people, right in the main settings.”

This is absolutely true, but does it really matter?

I remember, many years back, I was clicking away inside Firefox when I managed to make the Menu Bar disappear. This was quite problematic because with the Menu Bar missing there was no place to click to reinstate it. I frantically searched around online, seemingly forever, until I finally found the fix. I’d like to think that I learned something from the experience, other than don’t click away the Menu Bar, but I don’t think I did for I have no memory of what I did to restore the missing item, so if I were to do it again I’d find myself back in the same boat.

This is precisely the kind of thing that’s bothering Mr. Limi right now.

It seems that someone has brought to his attention the fact that a user can easily break Firefox without really trying. For example, he notes that by going to Tools>Options>Content and disabling “Load images automatically,” the text input box on Google will disappear.

“Congratulations,” he writes, “we just broke the Internet.”

That’s not quite true, of course. Users could still search using the gee-whiz search box built into the Firefox Navigation Bar, which they could use to search to solve the mystery of Google’s missing search input box.

Google with no way to enter search after clicking away “Load images automatically” in Firefox
He also wonders about giving users the ability to enable or not JavaScript, pointing out that many websites will display next to nothing without the scripting language up and running. True, but I’ll make you a promise: release a version of Firefox that doesn’t allow JavaScript to be easily toggled on and off and as soon as that version represents over half of the installed base, a very dangerous in-the-wild exploit of JavaScript will be found. At that moment, everyone at Mozilla will say in unison, “Wow! I could’ve had a V8!”

There’s more, of course. He points out the type of problems that could occur should a user disable SSL and TLS, not to mention the uncertainty that might be added to online banking should a user go playing around in the Certificate Manager.

As much fun as I’m having picking on poor Mr. Limi, these are all valid concerns, especially for someone who works in project design. Indeed, designers with any software project, especially when the product is as complex as a modern browser, need to constantly question how much control is useful and try to discover where the ability to customize gets in the way of the user experience. According to his blog, Limi believes in a 2% rule; if an option is used by less than 2% of the user base, then that option should be removed. To his thinking, the 2% who use the function wouldn’t be left in the cold, since they could simply use a plugin to reintroduce the missing option.

To me, this gets down to the classic GNOME or KDE argument. The designers at GNOME work on the assumption that functionality and ease of use is key, and that too much configurability only serves to confuse the user. The KDE folks, on the other hand, believe that making their product highly configurable doesn’t distract from function or usability, but is a useful enhancement. Mainly it’s a matter of preference–do you like redskin or russet potatoes? Personally, I like being able to configure software to my liking, so I’d weigh-in with the KDE camp here, but that’s just me.

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I’m not too sure that people go around breaking things all the time in Firefox. In my experience, non Geek types are pretty timid about clicking on things when they’re not sure of themselves. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the people I know who used a word processor or a browser for years without learning some very basic functions, simply because they were afraid to take the risk of clicking on something to see what would happen. I think most people who would be inclined to break Firefox are users like me, who are capable of fixing what we break, even if that means going online and begging on the forums for some help.

If I was going to “fix” Firefox, I wouldn’t start by doing away with configuration options. I’d start by making it less of a resource hog, especially in the memory department.

One Comment

  1. Gyffes Gyffes March 27, 2013

    I concur. Although I do wish they’d stop making it more and more minimal w/o user interaction: some of my older users struggle when “google goes away” (because bookmarks aren’t being shown, not JavaScript)

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