Web Technology

Re-Thinking Browser Buttons

A prediction: In the near future, browsers will no longer have stop and refresh buttons.

Think about it. When the internet first started out, pages actually took a human-measurable amount of time to load. And with finicky dial-up connections, it wasn’t uncommon for a connection to completely drop in the middle of a page load. It made a lot of sense to have a refresh button, in case you just lost your connection and have now reset it. Stop made sense too; if you saw a page loading tons of images, maybe it wasn’t worth loading at all.

Now fast-forward to today. Pages load instantly, and connections are almost always persistent. No more need for refresh, no more need for stop. The buttons are obsolete.

Testing the Theory

Looking at what buttons in my toolbar I actually use (I’m running Firefox), There are really only four:

  • Address Bar
  • Search Bar
  • Back
  • Forward

The buttons I don’t use are:

  • Stop
  • Refresh
  • Home

So to see if I really don’t use them, I removed them from my toolbar about a week ago. And you know what? I haven’t missed them one bit. They don’t fit into any of my use-cases anymore. We simply don’t need stop/refresh as much as we used to, and even home is less necessary than it was in the days of online portals.

In fact, I’m really starting to appreciate my minimalist toolbar. Back/forward on the left, then address bar filling up most of the screen, and a search bar off to the right. Nothing I don’t use every single day. It’s bliss.

A Note for Web Developers

Web development is one case where refresh — as an action — is still necessary. I still maintain that a refresh button is not needed in this case. Web developers are always power-users, and we simply don’t use buttons for actions like refresh; we use hotkeys.

If you’re a web developer, you probably at least use ctrl+R or F5 to refresh a test page. Better yet, you probably use ctrl+shift+R or ctrl+shift+del and some menu work to clear the cache before a refresh (and if you don’t, you should). Standard refresh buttons aren’t ideal for us anyway.

Browser “Support”

Obviously not everyone will be willing to part with legacy buttons right away. One interesting solution to this problem is customizable toolbars, such as the one used by Firefox. Here, the user has full control over what buttons appear in the interface. This is in fact the only browser I tested that allows the stop/refresh buttons to be removed.

There are also a couple of major browsers that have started to deemphasize the stop/refresh buttons. Chrome, for example, combines them into a single button, and Safari goes one further by merging this single control into the address bar.

Predictably, Internet Explorer is still a step behind. Microsoft’s browser’s UI is generally recognized as the weakest of the four, though it looks like they are catching up with IE9.

I didn’t spend much time digging into more niche browsers. If anyone uses one, I’d be interested to know how the UI stacks up against “the big four”.

What do you think? Am I out in left field here, or are we about to see a neat evolution in the web browser interface?

1 reply on “Re-Thinking Browser Buttons”

Amen Bro.
When these go, it will mean that a browser app simply behaves more and more like a desktop app. I cannot wait for the day where full page refreshes are gone, looks like there is a long route ahead though… I am more and more annoyed by that and I find myself annoyed often… ;-)

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