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It is not unusual these days to see someone on a browser application with so many tabs open that you can't even see the favicon. I remember when bookmarks were provided to help manage a large number of webpages that users want to come back to but I don't really understand the user behaviour that the browsers are supporting by allowing so many tabs to remain open with no real way of managing or navigating through it easily.

It seems like in many instances the user is just following some trail and leaving the tabs there to come back to later, but over time it gets cluttered and they are probably not even able to retrace the steps back to the tab(s) that they want logically.

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Is this catering for a typical web browsing behaviour or an unintended consequence of browser performance improvements or is there another explanation?

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    I have 3 bookmark groups, with 8-20 stackexchange network sites in each. I open them all as tabs in one window. They take a while to load, but also I take a bit of time to scan through each an look for important discussion – New Alexandria Feb 23 at 23:10
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    I always have at least 40 tabs opened at the same time, at least 35 pinned. I'd be very upset if browsers would have a limit on how many tabs I'm allowed to open. – Madalina Taina Feb 24 at 10:16
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    BTW, there are browsers (cough, cough, Firefox) that let you scroll through tabs when they overflow the width of the window instead of making them so tiny, you can even hardly see a single letter of the title. – rugk Feb 24 at 15:53
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    @MadalinaTaina how do you manage so many tabs? Don't you think there should be a mechanism to help make browsing through them easier (do you use Firefox by any chance?)? – Michael Lai Feb 24 at 22:18
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    @MichaelLai I bought a bigger monitor :P. Keeping the pages in bookmarks slow me down when I want to find something. I don't recommend it, just saying what is the reality... The reason is multiple projects, tasks, research... I use multiple browsers because I'm also a developer, but the default browser (with the tabs) is Chrome. Maybe it would be useful a mechanism to help to browse through them easier, but not limitation that you suggested. – Madalina Taina Feb 25 at 5:26
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+50

Arbitrary Limits are Bad

Arbitrary limits are rarely a good thing. I am sure there is a limit somewhere (maybe 256 tabs?) but as long as it is far out of normal usage, most users never know and will treat it as "infinite", which actually makes for a better user experience.

Having to manage "only up to 4" or "only up to 8" or some similar small number of documents is very limiting for the user. For example, classic WordPerfect 5.1 allowed easy simultaneous access to 2 documents. Want 3? Out of luck. Today's word processors - no set limit obvious to the user.

The same issue crops up in many different places:

  • Maximum rows or columns in a spreadsheet
  • Maximum size of a free-form text field (always best to make it so large that the typical user doesn't even know there is a limit)
  • Maximum simultaneous programs running in an operating system - unfortunately, this bumps into serious issues with memory and other resources that can't be avoided - but the general idea is to not impose an arbitrary limit.

And then we get to who actually uses so many tabs in a browser:

Power Users

Obviously, power users do this. Open news, weather, Google, StackExchange, company database, plus several tabs of actual work.

Casual Users + Poor Web Design

Some systems will automatically open a new tab for certain functions. Done well, that actually makes a lot of sense. However, some users (not the power users) will keep going back to the "main" tab without closing the new tabs, even though they are essentially done with them, not realizing that they are potentially slowing down their system due to the memory & CPU utilization (especially if the tabs have a lot of Javascript updates going on).

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    There is also page parking, which is millennial equivalent to power users' parallel browsing, in where users store web pages for future use. nngroup.com/articles/multi-tab-page-parking – locationunknown Feb 19 at 6:23
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    +1 I have even seen users that just open a tab in a new window and have multiple windows open to manage the tabs... in that case why not just use bookmarks instead? I am curious as to what leads to the behaviour of just opening tabs and leaving it there to look at later. – Michael Lai Feb 19 at 21:59
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    Bookmarks tend to get extremely cluttered. I don't use them anymore for "later". I either keep tabs open hoping I'll have time today, or I email myself the links. Bookmark list grows but never shrinks and becomes useless. – manassehkatz Feb 19 at 23:07
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    @locationunknown I am not a millenial. But I use "page parking" sometimes for shopping or researching and also for news (e.g., search for a topic in Google news, right-click-open-new-tab for each of the articles I'm interested in, then go to each tab and read/close - much less disruptive than the default "opens article in new tab and switches to that tab mode). – manassehkatz Feb 20 at 14:45
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    'some users...will keep going back to the "main" tab without closing the new tabs, even though they are essentially done with them' Often, with me, I don't know that I am "done" with a tab until it's time to shut the PC down. If that is a problem, it's a problem with the browser or the operating system, not with the user. – Rosie F Mar 1 at 20:11
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Browsers tend to put the ball in the user's court, in regards to managing tabs. What might seem as too many tabs to one user, is perhaps the perfect amount to another - and the current behaviour caters for both parties.

Managing tabs have also been optimised with tooltips on hover, the ability to group tabs in separate windows, etc.

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    + 1 I understand the idea of putting the ball in the user's court, but then having to optimize the management of tabs seems like remedial fix for something that can be done better in the first place :p – Michael Lai Feb 19 at 21:58
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Browser is just a tool for browsing the Internet. Imagine that your task is to develop browser. Will you develop browser that embodies your own way of right web browsing? Suppose yes. What will you answer when your users ask you for ability to open more tabs? Will you answer that they use your tool in wrong way or will you adjust it to make them happy? I think, in general, main purpose of any tool is to assist user do things in the way he prefer. So browser manufacturers simply follow their users' requirements.

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    I second this answer and would've written something similar. It's a tool. Yes it can be optimized to help manage a very large number of tabs (ex: double rows or min tab width), but they just haven't done that. My guess is that they are busy with other parts of the browser and the number of power-users who complain about this is not large enough to warrant the work required to improve it. – Davbog Feb 27 at 22:26

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