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I work on a web application that allows users to create tabs and fill them with modules that display analytic data. So one tab may have a series of bar graphs, and another may have a group of tables. Or one may have data pertaining to one aspect of our business, and another tab would detail another aspect.

The tab UI is similar to Google Chrome: to open a new tab you click on a "+" button to the right of all the other tabs. New tabs are appended to the right of the last tab added.

I'm wondering which tab should take focus when you close a tab. I've seen this done 2 ways:

  1. You close a tab, the tab immediately to it's right takes focus (or if there is no tab to it's right, the tab immediately to it's left takes focus).
  2. You close a tab, the last tab you were viewing now takes focus.

Which makes more sense from a UX standpoint?

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Depends on the purpose and use of the tabs. How were the tabs opened? Are they part of a process? Is this a web page or a web/desktop/mobile application? –  Susan R Jan 23 '12 at 15:04
    
What do you mean by "part of a process"? –  stinkycheeseman Jan 23 '12 at 15:09
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@stinkycheeseman I think by "part of a process" Susan R means, "Are the tabs connected in some way?" For example, if I'm in a browser and I open several Amazon pages successively in new tabs, then I open a Wikipedia tab and open several Wikipedia pages in new tabs, those could be considered two distinct "processes". If I close an Amazon tab, regardless of where it is or what I viewed last, I think it generally makes more sense to show me another Amazon page rather than a Wikipedia page. Granted, this doesn't apply to all contexts, so you need to evaluate what's best for your situation. –  Kris Harper Jan 23 '12 at 16:21
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@stinkycheeseman Yes, it is a nontrivial process. And it depends largely on what your application does. What makes sense in a web browser might not make sense in a spreadsheet. I would come up with a couple different algorithms and test it out to see what users expect to happen. –  Kris Harper Jan 23 '12 at 16:49
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@stinkycheeseman If it's not TOO much of a hassle, I'd say make it configurable. Going to the last viewed tab is one of the really great "small things" I love about Opera & why other browsers occasionally make me lose my will to live... Could easily be the other way around for someone else though. –  TC1 Jan 23 '12 at 21:05
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3 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I've just conducted some 'extensive research'* into this comparing how various browsers and desktop applications treat this issue and my findings are thus:

  • Axure - Shows tab to the right of the one closed
  • IE9 - Shows tab to the right of the one closed
  • Firefox - Shows tab to the right of the one closed
  • Chrome - Shows tab to the right of the one closed
  • Excel '10 - Shows tab to the right of the one closed
  • Safari (Mac) - Shows tab to the right of the one closed
  • Opera - Shows the last visited tab. <- Only app I can find that does this.

Therefore I'd suggest going with the majority. If major applications all work in one way then i'd stick with this to avoid confusion.

/Edit - On further thinking I believe the actual tab metaphor here is being used. If you have a load of files in a physical folder and you take one of the folders away you'd then see the folder behind this one. Replicating the tab metaphor in the web / computer world is a pretty common strategy as it presumably reduces the learn time needed to pick up the new skills.

*extensive research = testing out on the various applications I have on my laptop at the current moment in time.

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I have observed the following behavior with G+ in Firefox, and I don't know if it's Firefox or the site that's doing it. In G+, clicking on a link causes it to open in a new tab that grabs focus. If I read it and then delete the tab, it takes me back to G+ (what I wanted). If, on the other hand, I do anything with other tabs (navigate away and then come back), closing this tab does not return me to G+ -- Firefox has lost that context. If this is some special launch-tab mojo that G+ is doing then shrug; if "launch in new tab" always does that, I wonder if that's a factor in this analysis. –  Monica Cellio Jan 23 '12 at 15:40
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Firefox and Chrome switch to the last used tab. Open 3 tabs with sites, switch to the 2nd one, add another one, load a site on it, close it -> Chrome & FF will go back to the 2nd tab. –  dnbrv Jan 23 '12 at 15:42
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@dnbrv not for me it doesn't. Even tested on a Mac too and get the same thing; always the tab on the right is shown, unless there isn't one on the right when will then choose the one on the left. –  JonW Jan 23 '12 at 15:55
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There might be some confusion about how tabs are added. If I follow dnbrv's steps exactly, I get the behavior described by Jon W. But If I open a new tab from the tab I'm currently in (e.g., by right clicking a link and selecting Open in New Tab), then when I close that new tab I'm taken back to the old tab, regardless of where it is. –  Kris Harper Jan 23 '12 at 16:17
    
IE9 does something different where it groups tabs by your history. Go to a site and open a couple new tabs from that tab, then repeat that process and you'll have two differently colored groups of tabs. If you close a tab from the first group you'll be taken to a tab in that group, even though you last were on a tab from the second group. –  Kris Harper Jan 23 '12 at 16:18
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Generally, the last tab that the user viewed before the one that was closed.

If the tabs were preloaded somehow and there hasn't been any user interaction, then I believe it depends on the purpose of your application and the contents of the tab.

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No, I disagree with you. The last used tab is not predictable enough in most of the case (core UX principle). If you think about the use case where the user opens a tab to check an info and quickly removes it to get back to the previous one, then you have to OPEN the second tab directly to the right of the first tab. –  Alconis Jan 23 '12 at 16:13
    
I’m doubt that a predictability principle applies in this context. Users don’t close one tab in order to get to another tab. They close a tab to get rid of it. They see where they go next. Why would they need to try to predict it? Send them where they likely want to be, which I’d bet is usually the last visited tab. –  Michael Zuschlag Jan 23 '12 at 16:31
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From the UX point of view, the tab to focus on is the most predictable one. That is to say the obvious next one. Given the natural alignment of tabs from the left to right, when the user removes a tab, the tab on the right will take its place. That's why most browser show tab to the right of the one closed.

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