I have noticed that many people do not use tabs even though tabs have been around in browsers for some time. I have been noticing that people either do not differentiate tabs as specific navigational elements (e.g. a web page with tabs) or do not use them even when they know what purpose they serve. A lot of people have not even heard the word "tab".

These are only my personal impressions so I am curious to learn if you have noticed otherwise. Also I know a free add-on for MS Office which gives you a tabbed window. As far as I know it is not a massive success.

Why do some/ most people find it hard to use tabbed navigation (e.g. in an internet browser)?

Here is an informal study (blog published, 21 participants, all Firefox users, all students or friends of the author) that shows that most (of the recruited participants) do use tabs, but about half of the participants use them only rarely ("4 tabs for every 100 navigation actions"): http://dubroy.com/blog/how-many-tabs-do-people-use-now-with-real-data/

Since the sample in this study is not very representative (Firefox users have made a concious choice regarding browser usage and are therefore more aware of browser functionality; 21 is an extremely low number for analysing common behavior) we might safely assume that other user types (those using pre-installed browsers; those not friends to a computer nerd) will use tabs even less.


  • a speculation just occurred to me: what if people, generally, find navigation much easier on a vertical (e.g. book contents/ web site left menu/ Win Explorer folder tree/ etc) or if not finding it easier, at least expect it there, while navigation ver a horizontal is either more difficult for some reason or unhabitual?
  • $\begingroup$ Where are you drawing your sample from? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 6, 2013 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ I added a clarification. $\endgroup$
    – drabsv
    Commented Oct 6, 2013 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ from a user point of view, I don't dislike ALL the tabs but I certainly am not a huge fan of browser tabs or any other tabs which I can only reach after a considerable drag of my mouse or fingers on touchpad! instead I use keyboard shortcuts. I believe the location of the tabs are important, the farther they are from the center of the screen, the lesser it will be preferred. $\endgroup$
    – user3638
    Commented Oct 7, 2013 at 5:49

3 Answers 3


Because a majority of the people are just too plain stupid.

In an international study by the OECD on adult competencies (PIAAC) that evaluated literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments, it was found that only every third adult (in Germany: 36%) between 16 and 64 was able "to master more complex tasks such as navigating the internet".

Read that again. A more complex task such as navigating the internet. Only one third manages that. In an educated country like Germany where 77% of the population 14 and older use the internet.

This means that more than half the internet users don't know how to navigate the internet.

The study also found that

  • every eighth person does not know how to use a computer mouse
  • every fifth person only knows basic arithmetics or less
  • every sixth adult (!) has the reading ability of a ten year old child

I think tabbed browsing is a minor problem. The study makes me doubt the principles of democracy. How can people be allowed to vote, if about 15% of the adult (!) population "can at best read short texts with simple words and extract from these only very limited information"?

Source: http://www.oecd.org/site/piaac/


Background on strategy selection

We could categorise using tabs as a strategy for using a browser. There is a lot of research on the acquisition and use of strategies.

My thesis (see repository page with pdf link) has an extensive literature review (see page 21 onwards). To quote myself:

Another line of research has examined how people use computer soft- ware. A common observation is that users often plateau at strategies that are asymptotically suboptimal (for a summary of this literature, see Bhavnani & John, 2000; J. M. Carroll & Rosson, 1987; Charman & Howes, 2003). Classic studies in time-and-motion found that industrial workers rarely discovered the most efficient strategies for performing their tasks (Gilbreth, 1911). Charman and Howes (2003) found that about half the participants in their study shifted to a more sophisticated graphics drawing strategy ... Charman and Howes (2003) suggested that strategy shift may be greater in the lab than in the real-world be- cause participants are focused more on low-level task goals whereas real world workers are more concerned with high-level project goals. Furthermore, any discussion of optimality raises the question of what is being optimised, and the various costs and benefits of searching for optimal strategies.

Similarly, Yechiam et al. (2004) examined the use of a mouse versus a script-based strategy, along with a much slower keyboard-based strat- egy, on a spreadsheet manipulation task. Half of the participants were allowed to use the mouse strategy from the start, while the other half were required to use the script strategy initially. The script was difficult to learn, but ultimately quicker than the other strategies. They found that participants were generally unlikely to switch to the script strat- egy when it was introduced half-way through practice. Also, although Yechiam et al. (2004) did not report individual-level results, the pattern of results suggested that the shift to the using the script-based strategy tended to occur on the first or second trial of its availability or not at all. It would also seem that the shift to the script-based strategy was abrupt.

Relating this to using tabs

Presumably you use tabs because you find that they improve your browser experience. And I can see an argument for saying that once you know how to use them, they are objectively useful.

However, that does not mean that failure to use tabs is irrational.

  1. A user may not be aware of the existence of tabs or may not know how to efficiently use tabs. Presumably there are a near infinite number of things that a person is not aware of, so a user may need a general decision rule to guide them as to when to explore features of an interface. In particular, if a user is not experiencing perceived problems, they may not seek out strategies such as tabs.
  2. Automaticity is a powerful thing. If a user has grown comfortable using a browser in a certain way, they can focus on what they need to get done. Being concerned about low level workflow such as using tabs can be disruptive. Thus, they may experience a temporary drop in performance as they try to learn how to use the new tool.
  3. People differ in the importance of computers in their lives. The less a user uses a browser and a computer in general, the less benefit they are likely to derive from trying to optimise their interactions with the system. The complexity of representing such a system also uses cognitive resources.

Many similar arguments can be made about other computer strategies (e.g., using shortcut keys, programming versus manual approaches, using text editing keys rather than mouse based approaches, using Vim rather than notepad, etc.). None of this denies the value of tabs or other efficiency boosting strategies. I think most power users of computers develop a repertoire of skills for exploring an interface and developing an efficient workflow. However, that which is optimal or natural for a power user, may not be such for a more casual computer user.

  • $\begingroup$ "power users vs casual computer users" - I would agree in general, but I have observed this lack of grasp of tabs among people who use computers daily, on their workplaces and then at home. $\endgroup$
    – drabsv
    Commented Oct 10, 2013 at 9:29
  • $\begingroup$ "A user may not be aware of the existence of tabs" - this is the crux of the issue. Users are initially not aware of a lot of other interface elements - e.g. breadcrumbs. But my subjective observation is that early or late users seem to figure out the purpose of some elements, without external guidance, whereas tabs seem to remain completely out of sight and mind for a lot for the same people. $\endgroup$
    – drabsv
    Commented Oct 10, 2013 at 9:34
  • $\begingroup$ Nice answer. I think you could also appeal to Herbert Simon's notion of satisficing: while using tabs is almost certainly the "optimal" way of browsing the internet, people can achieve their short term goals online without putting in the cognitive effort to get used to tabs, which turns out to be much more important than "optimality". $\endgroup$
    – Eoin
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 11:04

I think that it all boils down to the fact that most people leave all settings defaulted either because they do not know they can be changed or that they do not care enough to take the time to customize their browser.

  • $\begingroup$ Browsers come with tabs turned on by default since quite a time. In web site interfaces tabs are also "by default". $\endgroup$
    – drabsv
    Commented Oct 10, 2013 at 9:25

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