Browser personas - form follows function

Today I downloaded the latest version of Firefox on my Mac, spurred on by some security concerns. Everything installed nicely and at the end of the process I was taken to Firefox's home page where I was instantly dazzled by a new feature - browser personas.

Browser personas are an expansion on the existing themes facility. Themes are fiddly as they involve complex sets of graphics, have far too many variables and the effort required to create one simply doesn't justify the end result. Perhaps Mozilla realised this. So they have released the latest version complete with a new pointless-but-fun freebie that allows you to put a background image behind all the buttons and bars at the top and bottom of your browser.

So I tried a few. And got really frustrated. Very quickly.

Some were incredibly beautiful and were visually well designed but not enough thought had gone into them and all too often you couldn't read your links or even see what the imagery was due to poor placement. But I noticed I could design my own - should be simple enough I thought. After all it's what I'm paid to do every day of the week.

While pirouette-ing my way through Photoshop it occurred to me that there was greater potential here. Already the most popular personas had been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times so maybe I could add a few designs to the pot and enjoy the double-whammy of personal satisfaction and spreading the name Purple Frog around the web a little further. Then maybe if it worked for us we could use it as another way to get our clients noticed too.

And then I hit a wall. My design looked nice enough in my browser (although the one size fits all approach was a pain as people have varying numbers of toolbars open (thus changing the height) and frankly there is very little screen estate to play with) so I then checked it in Windows XP and Windows Vista. Normally using either of those systems leaves me feeling morose but at least this time it wasn't a Microsoft product I had to worry about (or swear at).

Except that in this case form is following function but such a long way that it's practically a speck in the distance. Mozilla's programming team in their infinite wisdom managed to develop all three versions with the loosest consistency possible. So on each version the search field is in a slightly different place. As are the buttons and bars. Meaning you effectively have no consistent "safe areas" anywhere on Firefox's header. And as you can't set the system to offer the correct version for that person's operating system of choice you end up with either something bland that hedges its bets or more likely a complete mess.

It won't be long until I remove my custom persona sadly. But it makes me even sadder that someone came up with a fun idea but no-one thought to make sure it actually worked for all the assorted versions of the software. Hopefully with the next major release they will tackle this but until then I suspect the only users will be kids with Pokemon or Twilight obsessions (amusingly in the T&Cs you are expressly forbidden to use property that isn't your own - and yet that is what most of the most popular personas consist of. Clearly Mozilla aren't even vetting content that is being uploaded to their website. Worrying.)

This seems to be part of a larger pattern with internet based businesses. Back in the days of print you knew that if you sent artwork to the printers with errors you ended up with very expensive egg on your face. So to counter this you checked your work, checked it again, got someone else to check it and maybe then sent it to print.

But online projects can be corrected on the fly and can be deployed so quickly that there appears to be a real decline in standards, and quality control procedures seem to be non-existent. I imagine that the pervading attitude is "never mind, let's correct the issues after launch". The problem with this is it embarrasses your client, it embarrasses yourself and undermines confidence in your target market.

At least if errors were made in a printed piece the chance was you would see it before it was distributed or even sent to the client and so you were able to get cracking with damage control. Nowadays errors and gaffs can end up online within an hour of being conceived.

Clients often view online projects as being a quick means of deploying information. They are. But that doesn't mean the actual development and testing should be rushed. Purple Frog are very good at meeting deadlines but on the few occasions we don't it is quite simply because we don't like to release work that is anything less than perfect.

It's a shame that the teams behind Firefox don't have the same exacting standards. Admittedly I can live without my personal customised persona but to add insult to injury various features now no longer work. Form Follows Function but it seems the Function part doesn't work either, so what does that leave us with? Thanks Mozilla. You built up my dreams and while I had my head in the clouds you pulled the rug out from under me.

James Olney | Purple Frog

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Boss of Digital. Swindon fan. And frantic music collector.

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