New themes for Firefox and Thunderbird
Tuesday, 22 August 2006
Firefox 2 and Thunderbird 2 will both have a new look. Are these new themes an improvement or should Mozilla abandon this path and go back to the old?
One of the most important rules of application interface design is that you need to use existing concepts and patterns as much as possible. Introducing new widgets is something that should be frowned upon and should only be attempted if there is no existing widget that does the job. If you absolutely need to do something new, then you should test it very thoroughly and make sure it looks and works like users would expect.
Themes are a way to customize the look of an application. A theme may change the colour of the browser, use different icons or could even change the way how widgets look and how these widgets are used. The ability to download new themes and modify the look of the browser could potentially be a pitfall to inexperienced users, because not every theme designer is an expert in application interface design.
The new Firefox theme
What does this have to do with the new Firefox theme? I believe the new look of Firefox is trying to be too revolutionary, the new theme is departing from the ‘standard’ XP look and moving to something of its own. Not only are the icons updated, the way widgets look and work are also changed. To a Windows XP user, the browser will no longer look like a Windows XP application and no longer act as a Windows XP application.
One of the best examples is the use of tabs. Instead of using the default system appearance of tabs, Firefox creates a look of its own. This approach has an advantage – I don’t particularly like the look of the default XP tabs, but at the same time it looses several visual clues that users are used to. For example default XP tabs have a little yellow line on top of the currently selected tab. Also the tab has no border at the bottom which gives the effect of an actual tab that is selected. That last behaviour is pretty difficult to achieve in a browser – the colour of the tab and the background colour of the webpage has to be the same. I don’t have a problem with abandoning this concept – it simply doesn’t work for browsers – but it does make the selected tab visually less recognisable. The new Firefox theme also does away with the only other default indication of a selected tab – the yellow line on top. Instead it will make the text on the selected tab bold and the text on the other tabs grey. Sure, it is a perfectly valid way to indicate the selected tab, but it is not the way users are used to.
I already mentioned that Firefox 2 uses a completely new icon set. The bright XP-like icons created by Stephen Horlander and Kevin Gerich are replaced by new toned-down icons. I realize that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that you can’t please anyone, but still…. In my opinion these new icons are definitely not an improvement over the old ones. I do realize that with the upcoming Windows Vista – which uses a more toned-down look – the old XP-like icons will not fit. But the current icons will not fit either, not on XP nor on Vista. What’s up with the Aqua look anyway? Sure, that will fit on a Mac, but not on Windows.
The biggest problem of the new icons is visibility. While the older icons were really standing out on the toolbar, the new icons almost disappear into the new toolbar. When you move over the icons they do become more clear, but at the same time also become very dark and sombre. If you use small icons – like I do – the result is even more dramatic. Sure I can distinguish the Home icon and the Search button from the background, but imagine that you are 70 years old and have some problems with your vision?
I am sorry to say this – the guys at Mozilla obviously spend a lot of time on this – but I think they are on the wrong path on this one. The new theme is not an improvement and will need quite a bit of redesigning to make it work. In my opinion they would be better of by keeping the older theme. Luckily you can still get the old ‘Classic’ theme from Kevin Gerich’s blog.
The new Thunderbird theme
One of the things that amazed me from the beginning is the lack of consistency between the Firefox and the Thunderbird theme. This started when Firefox moved to the Pinstripe theme and Thunderbird kept the old Qute theme. At the time I was hoping the Thunderbird would also move to the Pinstripe theme, but that never happened. Now that Firefox is moving to a completely new theme I was expecting that Thunderbird would move to that theme too… Well, if only things were that simple. Thunderbird will indeed get a new theme, but instead of taking advantage and giving both flagship products a consistent look and feel, Thunderbird is moving to something completely different.
Of course this inconsistency does have some advantages. If you read this far you know I have some problems with the new Firefox theme. Unlike the new Firefox theme I think this new Thunderbird theme is actually an improvement over the old theme. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have it’s own problems, but at least it doesn’t look completely alien to Windows XP.
The problems I have with the new Thunderbird theme are relatively minor. I generally like the icons, but I am a bit confused about the non-standard feed icons. Not too long ago the guys at Mozilla make quite a bit deal about licensing the feed icons and proposed a whole set of usage guidelines. It is true the guidelines were relaxed quite a bit in the final version, but the icons used in the new theme certainly don’t comply. The ‘Folder’ icon is also a bit problematic in my opinion – it is rotated. Every other XP application uses folders that have a tab on top, while the new theme uses a folder that has a tab on the right side. Sure it is still recognisable as a folder, but why make it more difficult for users than it needs to be.
Finally the options window. While I do like the large blue bar, it is a concept that is completely foreign to Windows users. It is completely different from Firefox and while it may be pretty when used in a custom theme, it is not something that should be present in the default Thunderbird theme.