Visual History

Joel Gustafson / Things

GitHub, Chrome Web Store

A collaboration with Kenny Friedman

Introduction

Modern browsers lose rich information when they compress browsing history into a linear stack, which makes backtracking from a forest of links surprisingly difficult. We can do better.

This solves an ancient problem with Wikipedia. Visual History is a Chrome extension in collaboration with Kenny Friedman that delinearizes your browsing history with a richer alternative to the Back and Forward buttons. Instead of a stack of previously visited destinations, Visual History maintains the forest of trees that represent each tab’s path around the internet, and lets you easily backtrack to any site you’ve recently visited.

Motivation

Back and Forward buttons are simple and convenient, but the underlying history stack is a terrible model for navigation. Websites aren’t stops on a subway line; they’re nodes in a connected graph. Even within this graph, we rarely just wander down one winding path: we backtrack from articles to homepages, from links to search results, and from threads to forums. The internet is a graph, and we tend to browse hierarchically.

But browsers make hierarchical navigation very difficult. Going back to a page of search results and down to a sibling link “destroys” the original link in the back/forward stack. This is bad for a couple reasons.

First, since we can “lose” a link if we’re not careful, we assume the mental load of tracking our history ourselves, so that we know when it’s “safe” to go down a new branch, or when we might want to save our “place” for later. Design should minimize mental load, not add state to the userspace.

But even worse, when it’s not safe to go down a new branch, and faced with the threat of losing a page to which we may want to return, we usually resort to ridiculous hacks like opening links in new tabs. This is subtle. “Tabs” organize content categorically. That is the tab metaphor. Opera had tab groups and Safari has a grid tab view, but neither Chrome nor Firefox have any concept of an "overview" layout or tab hierarchy. But more often than not, browsers reduce tabs to a scattered breadcrumb trail of abandoned siblings - links that we popped open because it was inconvenient (or dangerous) to navigate to them directly. These new tabs don’t have any idea where they are in the internet - we can’t go back from them, and we sometimes forget how we got there in the first place - but dammit, at least we can Ctrl-Tab between them quickly! Not only is this both computationally and spatially wasteful, it’s also confusing and antipattern. It’s just bad design.

Usage

Navigate around the graph by clicking the graph icon in the toolbar, or by using Ctrl + arrow key (or Cmd + arrow key for Mac) shortcuts. When Ctrl (or Cmd) is released, Chrome will navigate to whichever node is currently selected.