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However, some experts argue that the browser history is less broken than these researchers suggest. Larry Constantine, a usability expert and professor at the University of Madeira, in Portugal, notes that some browsers already make sophisticated and hidden use of history information. For example, the Firefox 3 browser is good at guessing URLs from a user’s history based on keywords entered in the address bar. Whether the browser history is useful, he says, “depends a lot on which version of the browser people are using and on their personal habits.”

Jared Spool, founding principal of User Interface Engineering, a consulting firm based in North Andover, MA, says that people tend to revisit pages by retracing the way that they found them in the first place. “It’s sort of a cliché, but we are creatures of habit,” he says.

If the first path to the information worked well and quickly, it’s not natural to seek out a second path, Spool says. He’s not sure that most users would change their behavior even if the history were better designed, but he sees potential for using it for specific purposes. For example, he says, authors might want to use an improved browser-history tool to revisit research resources, or a company’s employees might use such a tool to help them navigate a poorly organized intranet, which might contain material that’s harder to search than is content on the wider Internet.

Spool says that the ideas behind the prototype history tool are likely to filter into consumer products in a very different form. “What we’re seeing here is the first piece of the pollination process,” he says.

Indeed, the Carnegie Mellon researchers point out that browsers are already starting to explore alternate ways to use data from people’s browsing habits. For example, Google’s Chrome browser features a “speed-dial” page when a user opens a new tab that shows thumbnails of frequently visited websites. Carnegie Mellon’s Hong notes that a redesign of the browser’s history could be particularly helpful for less Web-savvy users, who might have trouble figuring out the steps of the path that they originally took to a piece of information.

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Credit: Technology Review

Tagged: Computing, user interfaces, browsers, Firefox, browser history, usability, Firefox add-ons

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