A Defense of the Safari 15 Redesigns

Jeff Kirvin, in an essay titled “Safari 15 Isn’t Bad, Just Misunderstood”:

So what do we have? A new browser UI that shows as much of the page as possible when the user is interacting with the page, and surfaces UI chrome only when the user indicates that they need to interact with the UI. Adaptive and contextual. This, Federico, is why Apple declared war on buttons. You should only see a button when you need it. The rest of the time you should see as much of your content as possible.

There’s a general sense of “everyone dislikes the new Safari designs” and I know that’s not true, even though public sentiment is strongly against them. So even though I don’t find Kirvin’s arguments compelling, I thought it was worth linking to them, because I do think he explains what the designers of the new Safari UIs were shooting for. Content-first; hide more of the browser chrome. I stand by my take though, that they threw the baby out with the bathwater — the tradeoffs aren’t worth it. It’s good for web browsers to default to minimal browser chrome, but the chrome that is displayed should look like chrome, not part of the page. The web page and the web browser are two very different things, and the way they look should make that obvious — not obfuscate it. The Safari 15 UIs shown at WWDC are show-y off-y designs that solve problems that don’t really exist in the practical world. Across all three platforms — iPhone, iPad, and Mac — Safari’s previous (that is to say current, non-beta) designs devote as much screen space to showing page content as anyone could want while still exposing the most-used browser controls.

Update: One more comment. Kirvin wrote:

Again, I use the word “pages” instead of “tabs” deliberately. Federico asked why the tabs don’t look like tabs, they look like the address bar. Because that’s precisely what they are. The tabs are the address bars of other pages you have open. You’re not switching tabs, you’re switching pages. This is also why the title bar and toolbar take on the same background color as the page you’re on. The entire Safari window is the page. When you switch from one page to another, it all changes to match the new page.

There was no title bar in the original Safari 15 design. You got URLs in address fields, but page titles weren’t exposed other than in the Window menu. That was, in my opinion, a fundamental flaw in the design. Web page titles are useful, and should be more human-readable than URLs. But Kirvin is spot-on that the Safari 15 tabs on Mac and iPad weren’t really tabs at all. The problem for Kirvin and any other fans of the WWDC previews of Safari 15 is that people both like and understand tabs. For a long while, web browsers either didn’t have tabs, or offered tabs as a semi-power-user non-default feature. Web browsing was one page = one window for a long time. Tabbed web browsing isn’t the way things have always been — it had to earn its spot as the default way that every major desktop and tablet browser works.

Safari 15 no longer really has tabs” was always going to be a very tough sell for users with a decade (or two!) of tabbed browsing muscle memory, no matter how conceptually sound the new design was.

Monday, 19 July 2021