Top of the browser to ya… the shadowy toolbar trend

grab from top of compfight – a Flickr search tool

grab from New York Times – a Newspaper

Maybe it is part of the movement toward a browser-based OS or maybe it is just copycats, but the left side, top and bottom of the browser window are becoming a space for toolbars of all kinds. Now that screen resolutions are becoming larger and in the case of laptops, wider there is an opportunity to provide persistent controls for these site that are becoming more application-like everyday.

This is clearly the beginning of the trend since there is no defacto use for this area. Some use it for highlighting content – during the election Twitter used the top toolbar to provide a quick jumping point to the political searches and filters. New York Times uses it as the front door to its newest social networking feature. So it is more tool-like in that case. The Compfight example treats the toolbar as the primary navigation point for the site. With the introduction of Vista’s ribbon toolbar the control/tool-like pattern may prevail in the long term. For now there is no clear leading use.

Questions remain…
The left and bottom areas of the page are being utilized as well. Facebook introduced the persistent footer control panel. I am a fan of this since the idea got left on the cutting room floor for one of our projects. My being a fan however does not mean that It is a great pattern. I still have questions about the usability of such a pattern, especially given the discrepancy in its implementation. I can picture usability study scenarios where people glance right over the feature in search of more common and established controls.

But regardless of the questions and discrepancies, I enjoy that sites are exploring a better use of the space that is opening up for design.


2 thoughts on “Top of the browser to ya… the shadowy toolbar trend

  1. Ryan here, the co-founder / designer behind compfight.

    In the case of our site, the fixed position of a toolbar made clear sense (compfight is a “tool”). When someone is scrolling hundreds of thumbnails, its a pain to scroll back up the page to begin a new search. The old, common solution was to create the dreaded “back to top” anchor link or just ignore the problem.

    Concerns remain. I’d guess the primary reason for the trend, doesn’t come from the design side. Cross-browser support for fixed “persistent” positioning is still a bit new. So from a technology standpoint, its application must be warranted. On the design front, I agree it is tricky. Most users will only look at this area when something goes awry (I’ve noticed a trend to use these spaces for “Help” or FAQs).

    While I’m not stoked on being called a “copycat” considering we’ve had a fixed white nav area since circa 2007, thanks for the interesting read.


  2. Ryan,

    Thanks for the comments. Compfight is indeed an original ‘cat’ regarding this pattern in web UIs. It is a very elegant application of the pattern. Especially in combination with the progressive loading and bottom affixed pagination. The slight transparency on the top is a nice touch as well.

    The technology consideration is a great point. Hopefully as sites open doors to richer HTML interfaces the kinks will be worked out.

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