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Do Mobile Operating Systems Need a Screen That Lets Users Choose Web Browsers?

October 6, 2014

Google had a problem. They realized that the more they knew about user behavior outside the limited scope of a search box, the more valuable their services could be to their users. They wanted to increase the legitimacy and value of data collection to deliver a better product to users as they expanded beyond Web search products. To ensure that they had sufficient control of the user experience, Google felt it would be best to offer their own Web browser as a way to gain more direct access to the diverse range of people who grew accustomed to using Google Search to find what they were looking for on the Web. The Google brand had enough cachet that it had become a verb in the lexicon—something Google would like to protect. The large population of novice users who usually search using Microsoft Windows were at risk when Microsoft offered a competitive product to their captive audience.

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In 2009, Google conducted some research, taking a survey to New York’s Times Square and asking a random sample of people some specifically worded questions to determine whether they knew what a Web browser was. Only 8% responded correctly.

The introduction of a search box into the Mozilla Firefox Web browser user interface greatly improved the user experience by making search easier. The engine behind that user interface lets users choose one of a number of search providers as the default. More recently, many Web browsers have merged the functions of the address bar and search box in an omnibox.

However, the business of search faced a significant problem: there is a statistically significant group of people who don’t know the difference between products and the Web browser they use to access them.

Ultimately, a computer or device operating system is the last touchpoint between users and their access to tools. When an operating system (OS) offers a default Web browser that is embedded into the system, how many of the large population of users will be aware that there are options beyond the default Web browser? How easy do OS vendors make it to install and use other software—especially applications from competitors?

Defaults and the Power of Inertia

Many users never change the default settings on their computers. This must mean most people generally trust that the products that come bundled with their computers and other devices are good enough for their needs, and they often remain incurious about other options.

The book Nudge, by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, discusses research into behavioral psychology, decision making, choice architecture, and the power of defaults that explains this phenomenon. It also challenges leaders in public policy and the private sector to ensure that people in the powerful role of choice architect—who subtly influence and steer people’s decisions—are doing so in an ethical and sensible way.

The mobile app store has seemingly helped to offset the fear of change that casual computer users may experience when downloading or installing software that could potentially be harmful to their user experience. They may perceive harm from

  • a reduction in current-state familiarity
  • a more complex solution that is less easy to use
  • the complexity of recovering the state of their system prior to installing something that could break a satisfactory status quo
  • being deceived and installing something that exploits their ignorance or trust
  • a lack of faith in crowd-sourced information from experiencing that a collective can miss important details

What often happens in such situations is that kind, more technically advanced users share their knowledge about other product options with novices and explain their benefits to them. However, those experts may be biased toward whatever applications they’re most comfortable with, potentially making them evangelists who steer novice users toward their own preferred products, regardless of whether they’re aware of doing so.

Government Decisions and Their Impact on Browser Diversity

In more extreme cases, operating system vendors can have significant influence on how users access and experience the Internet.

In the United States and Europe, governments made legal judgments against Microsoft because of the tight connection between Internet Explorer and the Windows operating system, as well as their business practices that prevented the inclusion of Netscape Navigator on Windows computers. The European Union has enforced rules that empower users by requiring the display of a highly visible Web browser–selection screen, shown in Figure 1, when a user sets up a Windows computer for the first time.

Figure 1—Web browser-selection screen in Windows
Web browser-selection screen in Windows

Since the ruling against Microsoft occurred, we have seen a significant increase in Web-browser diversity. The decision to present browser options through a choice architecture sparked user awareness and an interest in trying new software options that made things more complicated for users.

European and US rulings had very different implementation standards, impacting the methods of ensuring that users understood their options. In fact, Microsoft still incurs legal damages because of non-compliance with the law.

In the early 2000s, Mozilla’s Firefox browser chipped away at Internet Explorer’s dominance by offering new features and supporting a better Web user experience. Google promoted Firefox on Google.com and is still supporting Mozilla financially to this day.

Around the same time, Apple developed Safari, their own Web browser for Mac OS X, to eliminate their dependency on Microsoft, which provided a Mac version of Internet Explorer. Ultimately, this move enabled Apple to develop a mobile-device operating system and Web browser that would be key to the success of the iPhone.

The research on Web-browser awareness that Google conducted in Times Square likely informed their decision to move forward with the development of their own Chrome browser for Windows, Mac OS, iOS, and Android.

Updating the Implementation of Browser Choice

While the European Union has enforced higher standards of consumer awareness, this has not happened in the United States. Is it time to consider applying similar rules regarding browser choice to the increasingly diverse world of computing?

Mobile devices are quickly becoming a more common form of personal computing because they deliver

  • easy and more frequent access to the Web
  • convenience and simplicity
  • portability in diverse form factors
  • innovative forms of user data collection
  • constant connectivity with data

The work of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) ensures that all Web browsers have access to new evolutions of HTML, CSS, and other Web technologies.

Does it make sense to establish new standards that would ensure users are aware that the Web browser that comes with their device is just one of many options?

How easy is it for novice users to get the best Web experience on iOS; Android; the diversity of Android hardware, including Amazon Fire; Windows Mobile; and new entries such as Firefox OS and Samsung’s Tizen?

Are users aware of all their options and, more important, the limitations that each platform imposes on them? Are the vendors who are selling these devices giving their customers a well-informed, balanced view of the costs and benefits of each platform? Are platform vendors making contributions to the W3C to improve the overall quality of Web experiences? Vendor’s decisions regarding hardware, operating systems, and their Web browsers’ support of modern Web technologies can impact accessibility to digital content.

A salesperson’s employer has business agreements that may incentivize their advocating certain hardware and software over other products. Mobile carriers may promote Android devices because they’re generally less expensive for them to subsidize and easier to control.

The Web browser–empowered mobile market is attaining maturity, and key user experience and business factors are directly impacting decisions in the mobile-technology industry. Vendors offer bundled cloud services such as search to strengthen customer loyalty to their brand. Companies are exploring products in new form factors such as wearable computers that offer new methods of user data collection and consumption.

It is important that we remain mindful of the choices that vendors make regarding their mobile products, who may be passively or assertively influencing both those decisions and the purchasing decisions of customers, and who benefits most from people’s use of mobile devices.

Nothing in any user experience is truly free. 

User Experience Designer

Bensalem, Pennsylvania, USA

Evan WienerAs a UX designer whose education is in psychology, visual design, and technology, Evan enjoys solving problems to address user needs and enhance their experience by creating engaging interactive elements that delight people. Evan serves as an advocate for the benefits of taking the time that is necessary to do good design and think through the usability and accessibility of native apps and Web applications. He has worked as a UI designer and interaction designer as part of UX teams at a variety of organizations such as The Vanguard Group, Project Management Institute, Deloitte, and Expensewatch.com. Starting his career in visual design, Evan worked as an independent UI design and UX design consultant. He also served as a research assistant in the early days of online personalization and marketing as a Psychology undergrad at the Smeal College of Business at Penn State University.  Read More

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