Tab Management in iOS 15 Safari

Speaking from experience, they did a really hard thing

I was one of one hundred designers on Windows Phone and got to work on lots of interesting projects. One of my assignments was working on Internet Explorer for Windows Phone, though interally we just called it Browser. One of the most difficult challenges we faced was what I called the Octopus Tab Problem: If someone goes to a website and clicks eight tabs, how can you give them quick access to each page they’ve loaded? It’s easy on desktop, but on mobile it’s really hard. Back in 2012, no one had cracked it.

We were surprised to learn that tab management isn’t just a pain point for techies. Whether it’s someone going to Reddit to load tabs of cool content, NYTimes to catch up on the news of the day, a shopping site to compare items, Airbnb to compare rentals, or Zillow to compare homes, everyone is buried in tabs that we really want to see next to each other. This is a super tough design problem, so my team spent a lot of time on it.

I just saw how iOS 15 handles it, and this is the best implementation I’ve seen. In a brilliant implementation of Jakob’s Law, they’ve used the same design patterns and gestures from iOS multitasking. So if you know how to switch apps on an iPhone, you’ll have a head start figuring out how Safari does it.

But there’s one key difference: Safari needs to handle a URL bar and menu items. So the design turns the whole URL bar into a giant grippable object to let you go between tabs. I wish we had thought of a solution like that! It seems to work great so far.

Our pitch at Design Day 2 (2012 or 2013)

My team set up a way for features to audition themselves for consideration once a year. Design Day One was designed to show off insights and research. If the insights were promising enough, Design Day Two was where designers would explain the overall UX (in low fidelity) and strategy around the vision. Finally, Design Day Three was when the team would bring the finished designs, often accompanied with functioning prototypes, resourcing estimates, etc.

This was our Design Day Two presentation for Browser (IE) in 2012 or 2013:

Notice the “link throw” in the bottom right corner, and “swipe through history” towards the top right. Both were innovations around addressing the mobile tab problem. Maybe they would have worked, maybe not. But kudos for the product teams at Apple for taking such a big step forward. And not just in theory, either. They actually shipped, and that’s what really counts!

Designer, writer, teacher. I love building things.