Bring back the Firefox (wait / busy) mouse (cursor / pointer) (hourglass / clock)

Old versions of Firefox used to indicate when you were waiting for the next page to load, by changing the cursor to one with an hourglass or clock. This provided immediate visual feedback at the screen position where you were already looking that the link click had succeeded and something was happening. This is simply good UI practice.

Some time ago, in version 3.5, this feature got removed, without fanfare. This meant that now, to see if the browser is doing something, the user must look away from where they were looking, either at the tab bar or the status bar. Neither of these have the immediacy of the pointer change, and not everyone has the luxury of having them.

Many people felt this was a bad idea, as did I, but at the time no option was provided to restore it.

However I recently revisited the page, and found that, soon after I reluctantly gave up on finding a solution, they did indeed add an option to restore it. Go to about:config, and set the value ui.use_activity_cursor to true

This is far from the only bad decision that Mozilla developers have made in recent years. Removing the status bar is probably the most ludicrous one (and the one that would have sent me running to another browser immediately had there not been an add-on to bring it back), amd I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that their current release schedule and version number policy is barmy. Overall, it’s still great, and for modern web development nothing else comes close to Firefox armed with a stack of extensions like Firebug, Web Developer, Tilt etc. But it seems to me that Mozilla have repeatedly forgotten or ignored the diverse needs of their users in a bid to follow idealistic policies like having a “zen” interface, or upping their version number every 2 seconds (slight exaggeration) whether anything significant has changed or not.

Edit: 12 Nov 2014:
Another about:config option I recently discovered is the ability to stop the backspace key from going back a page. I never, ever, ever want it to do that, and whoever decided that was a good keybinding better not meet me in a dark alley lest they have to pay for all the times it’s bitten me. Anyway, fortunately in Firefox you can switch it off easily. The setting is browser.backspace_action and the magic number to change it to is 2. (1 makes it behave like Page Up – less annoying than Back, but still, just why?)

How to revert Firefox 14 awesome bar auto-completion behaviour / switch off URL autofill

Firefox 14 introduced a change to how the “awesome bar” (aka location bar) works – it now auto-completes in place. A lot of other browsers do this, so I guess it’s consistent, but I don’t like it – I find it much faster to recall my most commonly visited sites by typing a few letters (usually 3 is enough) which often occur in the *middle* of the URL, while the auto-complete always works from the *beginning* of the URL, and I find it confusing to be offered a suggestion which isn’t what I’m looking for. I’d rather see only the letters I’ve typed in the field, and a list of suggestions below.

I eventually found out how to revert to the old behaviour, but it wasn’t easy and involved being sent round in circles a few times. So, for your benefit, here’s how:

1. Type about:config in the awesome bar / location bar.
2. Use the Search field to locate the preference browser.urlbar.autoFill
3. It is true by default in Firefox 14. Double-click to set to false.

How to make sure you don’t miss posts by your favourite Facebook Pages

Make an Interest List and add it to your sidebar Favourites

You may have seen the following message circulating on Facebook:

Due to Facebook’s new policy, only about 10% of people that ‘like’ a fan page will see the status updates.

In order to see my posts and notifications just click/hover over the ‘Liked’ button (beneath the cover photo, to the right) and activate the ‘show in news feed’ option.

This will allow you to see all of the posts.

Unfortunately that information is WRONG.

You will probably find that your Show in News Feed option is already active for the pages you like, unless you specifically switched it off. It does not guarantee that you will see the page’s updates in your feed. If you click this option you may be inadvertently switching it off!

Facebook decides which posts to show in your News Feed based on how often you “interact” with a Page’s posts – basically how often you hit Like, Comment, or Share on them. But regardless of how much you do that, it now shows Page posts far less often than it used to, because FB wants Page owners to pay for the privilege of having their posts seen (by people who have already asked to see them!)

If you’re a big fan of a particular Page, there is something you can do to help ensure that you don’t miss its posts – put it in your sidebar Favourites (or Favorites for US spellers). It’s a bit complicated, but here goes:

When you hover over the Liked button for a Page, you’ll see an option in that menu to create a New List. This creates what’s called an “Interest List”. As well as the currently selected Page, you can then also add to it any other Pages that you want to follow (such as Quextal 😉 ) – but I suggest not putting too many pages into one list, or Facebook might again intervene to decide which posts it shows in the list. Or you could just have one page per list, and create a new list for each page that you want in your sidebar, but there may be a limit to how many lists you can have in there.

So, choose which pages you want on this list (you can always add or remove pages from the list later if you change your mind), and click Next. You then have to choose a name for this list, and decide whether to make it public – that’s up to you, and it largely depends on whether you think it might be useful for other people. Making a list public shouldn’t infringe your personal privacy in any way.

When you finish creating the list, FB will show you the list page, hopefully full of posts by the Pages you selected.

Now go back to the main FB homepage. Your new list should be in the sidebar under INTERESTS (you might have to click MORE at the bottom of the sidebar to see this. If you hover over the name of the list you just created, a pencil icon appears to the left of it[1]. Click that and select Add To Favourites (or Favorites if you’re using US English). This will (a) put it in your Favourites / Favorites section near the top of your sidebar, and (b) put a number next to it whenever there are new posts to read. To read them, just click on the name of the list.

  • [1] Users of Matt Kruse’s excellent Social Fixer plugin may have to disable it temporarily to do this step.

Note that this probably has no effect on how likely a Page’s stories are to appear in your main News Feed, which will continue to be driven by Facebook’s desire to extort money from the Page owners. But at least you’ll be able to see in your sidebar when there are new posts to read.

You can subscribe to other people’s public Interest Lists. For example, here is my list of selected psybreaks artists and labels (it’s not meant to be exhaustive, so apologies to anyone I’ve left off).

I hope this is useful. Please share this article, especially where you see people sharing the wrong information quoted above, and add a comment if you notice any errors or have additional information.

One size does not fit all

I wrote this in reply to an insightful article by Jenni Tennison giving an insider’s view of the UK government’s current project to unify all of its websites into a single one. I agree with the doubts she raises about this project, because I’ve been there, done that before…

Some years ago, I worked on a long-term project which was funded by the then Public Record Office. When that institution was rebranded as the National Archives, complete with shiny new website, they decided that our hitherto independently-styled and -managed website must be rebranded to mimic theirs in look and feel.

This was far from easy, partly because their design had a horrendously messy implementation, and partly because (of course) it had been designed without any reference to us or how our data delivery might fit into it. It was imposed on us as a fait accompli, and we had to – somehow – squeeze our square peg into their round hole.

We spent a full year smashing our clean, lightweight design into pieces and gluing it back together in order to fit their restrictive, bloated one. I didn’t much enjoy doing it (can you tell?), but I like to think we did a good job.

Possibly too good. What we found when it went live is that users got confused: our site, now a subdomain of theirs, looked and felt so similar to the main site that users expected it to work in exactly the same way, but this was ultimately impossible as ours had a fundamentally different set of functions than theirs. Those areas where we overlapped had been made to work identically, but this just led to confusion where the functionality diverged.

One size does not fit all. And the more distance there is between those responsible for the design and management of a site, and those producing the content for it, the more likely it is that some of that content will be presented poorly, or not at all.

I don’t think people really want all government websites to look the same, or to be in the same domain1. I think what they want is for information to be easy to find and easy to access. The best way to ensure that is to keep the designers and managers of the website as close as possible to the people producing the information. By all means have standards to ensure best practice, but keep them as minimal as possible, with a mechanism for those bound by them to suggest changes if they find them too restrictive.

And let different things look different, because that helps people to realise that they are different.


  1. URLs are irrelevant to many non-technical users, who nowadays routinely rely on search engines – even to find sites that they visit every day, as evidenced by the “Facebook Login” debacle 

Another day, another WTF

Can’t find the customer’s home country in the database? That’s ok; just pick any country with a vaguely similar-sounding name, that’s good enough.

A bizarre bit of code in the e-commerce software1 I’m currently fixing up does exactly that; it uses the Soundex algorithm to look for an approximate match to where the customer lives, according to the similarity of how the countries’ names are pronounced, rather than the more conventional considerations like geography.

There are 27 countries in the database that share a Soundex value with at least one other (mostly just pairs, but the largest matching group is 4: Ghana, Guam, Guinea and Guyana). In each group, all the countries would be rewritten to whichever was first alphabetically. Addresses in Greece would appear to be in Georgia; Norway became Nauru.

This sort of thing is nice and easy to fix (finding it is the hard part), but leaves a strange aftertaste… the insoluble mystery of just what was going on in the mind of whoever decided to write that code that made them think it would be a good idea…


  1. The software in question is an extended version of OSCommerce with lots of add-ons and customisation. I’m not sure whether the code in question originates from one of the add-ons, or is a specific customisation of this site done by their previous developer. In a way, I hope it’s the latter, so that other sites aren’t being affected… 

URL aesthetics

Look at the state of this… the URL itself I mean, not the page it points to:
http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/rma/eppi-ibdrp/hrs-ceh/6/RMA-CGR_e.asp

Can you imagine trying to dictate this to someone over the phone, or read it out on the radio? Reckon you can memorise it? If you saw it in your history list would you remember what the page was about?

URLs should be:

  • designed for people, not computers and not filesystems;
  • as short as possible (maintaining hierarchy only as necessary);
  • as meaningful as possible — using words, dates, standard reference numbers, or whatever will make sense to your users, not a bunch of abbreviations;
  • single case, not a mixture of lower and upper case;
  • persistent (cool URIs don’t change), and therefore designed with persistence in mind. A URL is more likely to persist if it is sensible and economical in the first place!

URLs should not:

  • include implementation details (.asp) and language preferences (_e), both of which can be handled transparently by content negotiation;
  • use unnecessary punctuation. Some punctuation is ok, but four dashes scattered throughout the URL is too many.

Ideally, it should also always be possible to remove the trailing part of a path to obtain an index document for that level. If that’s not the case (which it isn’t for this one), it’s a probable sign that you have more levels of hierarchy than you actually need.