Focus on the general consumer: “What would my neighbor think?”

November 13th, 2007

Here’s another element of building a consumer product that colors daily life for much of the Mozilla project.

Firefox is intended to be useful to both power users and to people who are not technical experts, who want to use the Internet without having to understand all the pieces that make it work. The power users are more demanding in some ways, but also easier to address in many ways. After all, the developers of Firefox are power users themselves. Mozilla began a much more serious focus on the general consumer when we shifted primary development from our initial product (the “Mozilla Application Suite”) to Firefox and Thunderbird.

This change of focus seems obvious but it is in fact quite hard. One has to really care — at a deep level — for people with far less technical mastery. Or for someone who cares only enough to get things done and not because he or she finds Internet architecture remotely interesting. For example, there are many, many people who do not distinguish between the the url bar, the search box, the buttons at the top of the browser, the start page (web content) served jointly by Google or Yahoo and Mozilla, and the software provided by Mozilla. They often describe that combination as “my internet” or “firefox search” or “google”.

These are not “dumb users.” I hear these comments here in the heart of Silicon Valley regularly. Here in the Valley one can usually clarify a bit, because the Internet is after all the engine of local economic life. But elsewhere many people really don’t care. They want to know only what they need to know to get other things done. As an analogy, I think of the international postal system. It’s highly complex, with inter-governmental agreements, local arrangements, and a raft of supporting infrastructure. Most of us don’t know or care much about the details; we care about what postage costs and how long it takes a letter to get there.

Designing a product for people for whom new features may be frightening or unintelligible is very different from designing for the power user. It’s limiting in some ways, and yet can force a useful focus on what’s really important. It’s not for everyone.

We think about this all the time. We strive to build products that are effective for the general consumer. We consciously make decisions that something that is awesome to us may not be right for the general product. Even more tricky, we aim to build a product for the general consumer that is powerful and elegant, that allows people to experience the richness of the Internet, and that grows with people all the way to power users.

As in many things, Mozilla is a hybrid. We are a pioneer in this aspect of open source and we are trying new things constantly. We hope others become experts in this — one of our explicit goals is to share what we learn so that our experiences end up benefiting people far beyond the products we produce. We couldn’t do our work without the efforts of those who came before us; we hope that others will find the same to be true of our work.

2 comments for “Focus on the general consumer: “What would my neighbor think?””

  1. 1

    skierpage said on November 13th, 2007 at 12:47 pm:

    What makes it even more challenging is the browser is a layer between the O.S. and web pages — literally, the chrome between the desktop and the document view — neither of which Mozilla controls.

    As an example, I set up my friend, a college graduate computer user for 20 years, with Firefox 2.0 and showed him the benefits of its tabs; I also set him up with an iGoogle home page with local weather and news. A few months later I realize he’s having problems just visiting Web pages, because Google made the terrible decision to put their own tabbed UI with a big _Add a tab_ on iGoogle. So when he tries to use the cool “tabbed browsing” feature, he’s messing up his Google home page!

  2. 2

    Anonymous said on November 13th, 2007 at 7:12 pm:

    So, given a user who currently does not distinguish between Google search and the address bar, how do you stop the problem of normal URLs going through the search mechanism, without forcing that user to think about the underlying model and the reasons they shouldn’t do that?

    I can think of various solutions, with varying levels of feasibility and effectiveness, but what would you suggest from a usability perspective?

Skip past the sidebar