One thing that has recently become a problem for me is the loss of usefulness of Alt-Tab. For those of you who don’t know, Alt-Tab in the Windows world and beyond is the shortcut to quickly switch your active application (task switch). But what happens when I can’t switch to my active applications, because they’re buried in my web browser?
The Problem – It’s not uncommon for someone who does real work with the corporate intranet to have several tabs open within their web browser with data sources, and a webmail tab. Add to that desktop applications like Microsoft Excel, and an instant messaging client, and we have broken workflow in Alt-Tab.
This effect will become more pronounced as more and more applications that we use daily sneak into the web browser – unless we launch everything from Adobe Air or Gears shortcuts on the desktop. That is not the case, since I’m much more likely to get to Google Calendar by clicking an Add this GCal link, than I am to launch it from my desktop.
User Solution – If the user wants to correct this workflow problem, they can open all of their working tabs as new windows. The major issue with that is pre-loading the cognition of the task. Odds are the user navigated to their document in an exploratory way, and didn’t precede that activity with the thought “I better open this in a new window just in case I find something I need to task-switch to.”
Last I checked (Firefox 3.0.8), there is no easy way to turn a tab into a new window in Firefox. At least not without the Tab Mix Plus! add-on (via How-To Geek). Though I understand “tab tearing” will be included in Firefox 3.1, and is already a standard feature in Google Chrome and Safari 4 (video link).
Potential Solution - The major web browsers that support tabs already support quickly rotating through the tabs using Ctrl-Tab. Integrating the tab switching functionality (including preview screenshots, tab titles, and all of that) into Alt-Tab would be good. The specific details of how that would look, feel, and interact would make a great little M.Sc. topic.
As a side note: The default built-in Alt-Tab application in Windows XP is fine (Vista Flip is even nicer), but there are a handful of better free replacements: one from the Microsoft PowerToys team, and an even richer one from Alex Avdonin.