I came across a study by Patrick Dubroy1 about how people use browser tabs. The study from 2009 is somewhat dated, but it raises some interesting questions that I want to explore further based on my personal dataset. Over a span of two years, from April 2021 to 2023, I tracked my browser usage, accumulating approximately half a million entries2. Let’s take a look at that dataset…
Ways of using tabs
The study by Duboy provides several examples of how people use tabs before explaining the quantitative data gathered as part of the study. This is interesting because how people use tabs can lead to different patterns in the data. Duboy highlights the following ways of using tabs in web browsers:
- Reminders: Some users utilize tabs as reminders to complete tasks or revisit links.
- Opening links in the background: Users find it convenient to open multiple links in the background, such as when conducting web searches or navigating news sites.
- Multitasking: Tabs are used to facilitate multitasking, enabling users to switch between tasks quickly.
- Going «back and forth»: Tabs are used for comparing and switching between pages.
- Frequently used pages: Some users keep tabs open for frequently visited web pages, as it’s easier for them to access these tabs than to navigate through bookmarks or other means.
- Short-term bookmarks: Users treat tabs as short-term bookmarks, keeping pages open that they plan to revisit later in the day or in the near future.
- Leaving tabs open for the future: Many users leave tabs open even if they’re unsure whether they will return to them.
I find myself guilty on all counts, but I primarily utilize tabs in two distinct ways: as short-term bookmarks and for opening links in the background.
I try to use my bookmark manager to collect interesting links and avoid excessive clutter in my browser. However, in practice, it doesn’t take long before I’ve accumulated a significant number of tabs containing pages I intend to read at a later time. Although I’m not entirely pleased with this situation, my current solution involves periodic decluttering sessions during which I sort through these tabs and convert them into proper bookmarks3.
The second way I utilize tabs is to open links in the background, especially when reading online newspapers or using a search engine. For instance, if I’m researching a topic, I open all the promising links from the search results page in new tabs, review them, close the uninteresting ones, and then repeat the process with the next page of search results. Like this, I’m able to collect lots of tabs about the searched topic, which I can then review in detail. I use this approach to such an extent that I rarely find the need to use the browsers back button.
Another thing I do is use browser windows as context groups, which Dubroy also mentions. For instance, I might use one window to research a specific topic while keeping another window open with all the social media tabs, which helps keep topics separated and organized. Based on this, I suppose I’m using a lot of tabs, which is also reflected in the data…
What does the data say?
In Dubroys study, the highest number of tabs opened at once by a single participant was 42, with an average of below 5 tabs. My data shows that, on average, I have around 28 tabs open, with the maximum number of tabs opened reaching 108. This is significantly more than the participants in Dubroy’s study. Even the number of tabs I typically keep open all the time, such as my webmail, the Nextcloud web interface, online newspapers, and so on, exceeds the average of around 5 tabs mentioned by Dubroy. An important aspect to consider is hardware constraints, such as screen size and, possibly, the performance of computers from 2009, which Dubroy mentions in his blog post about the study:
At a typical screen size on a laptop or desktop, the tab bar can fit about 9-13 tabs without scrolling […]. We see one person who maxes out at 13 tabs, and a few more who max out at 14. In all, there are 9 people whose maximum is between 10 and 14. 4
This suggests that the resolution of the display places a limit on the number of tabs that one can handle. In 2009 the most popular resolution was 1280×800px, which could fit around 10 tabs. On my wide screen, I can comfortably handle around 25 tabs per window without the need to scroll through the tab bar. Current hardware usually has a higher screen resolution and wider screens, so I guess todays users have more tabs open on average and don’t max out at 13 tabs.
The average and maximum number of tabs I have had open, grouped by week, can be seen in the following graph:
Another interesting thing to look at is how I tend to create new tabs. There are two ways: either using
ctl+t (or clicking on the plus icon in the tab bar) or opening a link in a new tab. Since I mentioned that I mainly use new tabs to open links in the background, it was expected that most of the newly created tabs would be created by clicking on a link. This also shows in the data:
What about time?
I added another metric to the mix: the duration for which a tab remains focused. This represents the time I spend focusing on a specific tab, which resets every time I switch tabs. It provides an indication of how frequently I switch between tabs. A smaller number suggests a lot of tab switching, while a larger number implies more time spent per tab and less switching. The chart below displays the average time a tab is focused on (grouped by week), where some interesting outliers are noticeable. In March 2021, I couldn’t attend university due to COVID-19, which is visible in the data because I had tabs focused for multiple hours while participating in online classes. Then there was another peak when I had tabs focused for an extended time while learning, followed by yet another peak when I was watching some TV shows.
How many tabs are too many?
So, how many tabs are too many? Sometimes, I have a huge number of tabs open and still feel organized, while at other times, I feel lost with just two browser windows and a few tabs. This aligns with what a study by Rongjun et al. demonstrated: the threshold for too many open tabs is personal and depends on the user’s browsing habits5. However, all in all, I rarely have the feeling that I have too many tabs open. The data indicates that if the average number of open tabs is around 40, there is usually a decrease the following week, which means having an average of 40 tabs open for one week is too much, and I feel the need to declutter. So, let’s say the magic number (at least for me) is 42.
- A Study of Tabbed Browsing Among Mozilla Firefox Users, 2010, Dubroy
- I used the open source software ActivityWatch for this. The collected data contains way more dimensions than just the number of open tabs. Maybe I’ll dig deeper into that in a future blog post.
- I use linkding to manage my bookmarks.
- How many tabs do people use?, 2010, Dubroy
- When Browsing Gets Cluttered: Exploring and Modeling Interactions of Browsing Clutter, Browsing Habits, and Coping. Rongjun et al. 2023