Rethinking the Widget

The author of Catalog of Unfindable Web Widgets emailed me, asking “Why can’t an average guy find reasonably […]

The author of Catalog of Unfindable Web Widgets emailed me, asking “Why can’t an average guy find reasonably informative widgets to drop into a design? ”

I read his article, full of innovative ideas
“Introducing the idea of preemptive hinting. The most POPular links of the Day, week, month. Some sites construct entire paragraphs made of densely packed but separate links, and there are directories and whatnot. Perhaps there is some need to integrate Web statistics into user navigation widgets so visitors can tell the really hot links from those less traveled

While a few of the ideas are a case of “right problem, wrong tool” he is 100% on the scent of something good. Why do we choose one widget over another? What is the right widget for the job? How do we use widgets in meaningful groupings, so that the user understands the range of possibilities that exist? And what widgets are missing from our toolsets?

Which reminds me of one of my ongoing widget issues.

Google’s tabs make me crazy. I know they shouldn’t, but they do. Tabs have proliferated across the web as a navigation device. From Amazon to PCWorld, they behave as the files in our file cabinet would. They classify and contain different stuff.

However, on Google, they act as lenses. Let me explain what I mean by “lenses.” Once you have done a search, you can see the information differently by applying a tab/lens to it. “See images”, “see groups”, “see directory listings”. If you click the tabs from the front page, it seems like they are behaving like proper tabs and take you to a whole new place where you can search a theorectically exclusive collection of stuff. But if you search first, it appears they more like night goggles, telescopes and microscopes– lenses that let you see very different things, yet, still the same matter.

I have had folks tell me that tabs-as-lenses is the proper software widget behavior. Research suggests otherwise: looking through windows, and at About Face (my favorite for best widget practices), I see tabs-as-folders — they hold mutually exclusive stuff (though typically the tabs are part of a family, the parent being the dialog box.)

In About Face, Alan Cooper writes, “I believe the tabbed dialog box is having such success because it follows the user’s mental model of how things are normally stored: in a monocline grouping”

It’s a subtle difference, tabs-as-lenses and tabs-as-folders, and looking at software standards is still less relevant than the question: “What is the prevailing experience and expectations of the web surfer? Tabs that behave as they do on Amazon, or as they do on the windows control panel, three levels deep into the TCP/IP settings?”

Then again, like the microscope/telescope analogy using the Google tab/lenses on my search shows me something so completely different that it might as well be classified separately. Too subtle a difference to fuss over? Then again, does a user really expect a tab to modify their existing search? or do they expect to be taken to a completely different collection of stuff, like every other tab on the web will do?

Would it be worth using a completely different widget for separating the concepts “these are different ways of seeing the same idea/item” and “these are different things altogether”? For a short while, Amazon experimented with using tabs within tabs to allow people to look at different aspects of book data: the reviews, the product metadata, the pictures from inside the book. The design is gone now, but it was a perfect example of tabs being used as lenses.

And if it is worth separating lens behavior from tab behavior, what would such a widget look like?


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  1. 1
    Joshua Kaufman

    Great thoughts Christina. I’m surprised that people have told you the lens behavior is the proper software widget behavior of tabs. I don’t use a ton of different software, but I don’t know of many instances of the lens behavior in the software I use. I happen to have HomeSite open right now and I immediately see two different uses of the tabs within the same interface. The Edit and Browse tabs exhibit the lens behavior you describe, but the tabs on the toolbar switch between mutually exclusive tools. While thinking about this, I thought I would check out the Apple and Windows interface guidelines for using tabs.

    From Apple’s Aqua Human Interface Guidelines:

    “The tab control provides a convenient way to present information in a multipage format.”

    From Microsoft’s Official Guidelines for User Interface Developer’s and Designers:

    “A tab control is analogous to a divider in a file cabinet or notebook. You can use this control to define multiple logical pages or sections of information within the same window, as shown in Figure 8.40.”

    While neither specifically says that tabs can be used to define multiple views (lenses) of the same information, the Windows guideline does say ‘multiple logical pages,’ which could be used to argue the lens behavior. When compared directly to dividers in a file cabinet, the lens behavior doesn’t seem logical, but in the interactive world it seems to be a natural evolution of tabs. With multiple views of the same information becoming increasingly important, I think tabs will continue to evolve and we’ll see some interesting “lens tab” interface designs in the future. Anyone know of tabs visually designed with different views in mind?

    I love this stuff. 🙂

  2. 2

    While I absolutely love the filtering “lens” feature of Google, the first time I discovered it I did not have the EXPECTATION that a lens view of my general search results would be applied.

    My entire definition of what is ‘Usable” is based solely on a user’s first experience with the site. And I don’t buy the “tabs as lens” to be a general user expectation when encountering it for the first time on Google — even if they’ve already come across this type of tab usage before.

    Yeah, the lens works wonderfully for those who have come to LEARN that behavior. So a more appropriate visual design needs to be created that creates an expectation of what happens.


  3. 3

    Although the behavior of the Google tabs were initially unexpected for me as well, I can think of another case where I didn’t question the “tabs as lens” metaphor at all: MS Frontpage

    The main window has three screens, each of which can be accessed by a tab at the bottom. One window shows the html code, the next one is WYSIWYG, and the third Preview mode (or something like that).

    So I’m looking at what is pretty much the same thing in each window, just with a different lens in place, but I think that the tab metaphor works fine here. Perhaps instead of a tab as lens metaphor, it might be a case of layers, where clicking on a tab brings a higher level layer to view?

    At any rate, great thought provoking entry!

  4. 4
    Steve Mulder

    Another subtlety here is that the lens metaphor on Google isn’t quite accurate: Clicking the Images tab doesn’t really result in focusing or refining or narrowing my query, thus giving me a list of sites that contain the term “images.” Instead, it flips me into a parallel universe. I get actual image thumbnails instead of a list of sites.

    Instead of different views on a single entity (like the FrontPage interface), it’s more like one single view into different worlds. OK, now I gave myself a headache.

  5. 5
    David Frahm

    Wouldn’t this just be a command, which should be implemented as a link or button? Why do we need a *lens* widget?

    BTW – I’m asking these questions to gain information (imagine that!) and not just to make a point.

  6. 6

    A widget could be a link, or a button or a completely different shape altogether. the important thing is that it convey a filtering/lensing activity. maybe it’s a dropdown modifying a text field, as seen on

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