Rethinking themes in Firefox

12 September, 2016 § 5 Comments

04b11051730953b648e852e9f9a91623A couple of weeks ago Mike de Boer and I started work on a project to rethink themes in Firefox. At present day, Firefox offers two ways for users to theme their browser: XUL themes (also known as “complete themes”) and lightweight themes (also known as “themes”). We want to create something that gives more power than lightweight themes while also being easier to create and maintain than XUL themes.

Last week we published a survey asking theme authors and users what they like about themes and what they would change. To date, we have received over 250 detailed responses. We will be keeping the survey open and monitoring it for anybody that has not had a chance to reply yet. Here’s what we’ve learned:

Have you made a lightweight theme before?
21.8% yes

What do you like about lightweight themes?
A strong majority (70%) of lightweight theme authors said that they liked how lightweight themes were simple and easy to make. The next group, at 6%, said that they liked how lightweight themes always remain compatible after Firefox updates. 4% of users also liked that they were easy to install with no restart required. A couple people complained that they were too simple and there was too much spam in the themes section of the Add-ons website.

What do you feel was difficult to do or missing from lightweight themes?
A little less than (42%) half of responses would have liked to do more than just a couple of images with lightweight themes. They would like to apply background images to other parts of the browser, change icons, buttons, and the size-of and location of browser components. The next group of responses (10%) wanted more support for scaling, repetition, animation, and position of background images. Improved documentation (8%) and a lack of a development environment such as an in-browser editor followed (6%). The last two groups of responses wanted the ability for themes to change based on external factors (2%) and separate images for the tabs and tab toolbar (2%).

Have you made a XUL theme before?
23% yes

What do you like about XUL themes?
A strong majority of the respondents agreed firmly with 71.2% that XUL themes are awesome in allowing to touch and customize all the things. The second largest group of respondents seek out XUL themes because they offer more nuts and bolts to tinker with than lightweight themes at 11.5%, while the familiarity with the CSS styling language is the main reason to like them for 7.7% of the respondents. Two other notable groups are people who like dark themes, which are apparently only really available as XUL themes, and ones who feel that XUL themes are the easiest thing to make on this planet, each at 3.9%.

What do you feel was difficult to do or missing from XUL themes?
The largest amount of responses (29.8%) said that it is a real pain to keep these themes up-to-date and working, with the current fast release cycle of Firefox and the fast pace of development. 28.1% of the respondents rightfully complained that they need to use exotic, undocumented technologies and unknown CSS selectors in order to create a working XUL theme. Whilst 15.8% claimed there is nothing wrong with XUL themes and we should keep it as-is, another 12.3% is sad about the lack of documentation or any kind of manual to get started. Packaging and delivery of XUL themes is not considered optimal by 10.5% of respondents and that ultimately very few of these themes can be configured after installation (3.5%).

Why do you install themes?
About half (47%) of the survey responses want to personalize Firefox. These people said that they want to make Firefox “their own” and have fun showing it off. They enjoy having full control over the user interface through XUL themes and like the ability to set arbitrary CSS. The next set of responses (16%) asked for a “dark” Firefox, making it easier on the eyes at night. These responses were generally focused on the toolbars and menus of the browser being dark. At 12% of responses was closer integration with the operating system followed closely by 11% of responses saying that they felt the default theme was boring and bland. The last category of responses that received multiple votes was to allow themes to undo recent changes to the user interface, as an attempt to keep things the same that they’ve been for the past months/years.

What capabilities would you like themes to have?
More than half (56%) of the survey responses want full control over the browser UI. They would like to move and hide items, change tab shapes, replace icons, context menus, scrollbars, and more. Following this large group, we had close to 5% of respondents who wanted to simply change basic colors and another group, also close to 5%, that wanted to make it easy for users to make simple tweaks to their browser or an installed theme through a built-in menu or tool. Native OS integration, such as using platform-specific icons and scrollbars, followed closely at 3%. Also at 3% of responses were requests from users who require larger icons and improved readability of the browser’s user interface for improved accessibility. Not far behind, and ironically next in the order of responses, were requests for a smaller browser UI (2%). These users generally want to maximize the amount of screen space that web pages can use. Both “dark themes” and “themes not breaking with future releases” got 2% of responses. In our last group of responses at or above 1% was themes that could change based on external factors (time of day, season, month, web color, or a very slow animation), restartless and easy to trial, ability to apply multiple themes to create a “mash-up”, and to lighten the tab bar.

What parts of Firefox are most important to you to be able to change the appearance of? Why?
Almost 20% of the respondents can not make a choice between the parts of Firefox and thus want to customize the app in its entirety. Following closely with 16% is the group of respondents that think the tabs area is the most important part for themes, while half that number choose toolbars, (toolbar)button icons and the area above the tabs, including the window decoration and window controls. Interestingly, the wish to be able to theme in-content pages is as strong as that of the Awesomebar and respective navigation controls: 6.8%. Changing the colors, palette and fonts used for the UI are the other most notable choices from the community of respondents at 6.4% and 4%, respectively.

Are there theme-related features from other browser or apps that you would like to see incorporated into Firefox?
An overwhelming majority of the respondents insist that we don’t need to change a thing and that other apps don’t offer grand alternatives at 36.5%, or simply can’t think of any. The Vivaldi browser came up in our preliminary research and also takes a prominent position as device of inspiration for theming features at 11.2%. A dark theme like other apps already offer in their package (5.9%), applying tints of color on SVG icons and background masks (2.9%) on UI elements – most notably the titlebar – and take Opera’s about:newtab theming capabilities (2.4%). A notable response from 2.9% of respondents was to introduce a live theme editor in Firefox with sharing capabilities, so that theme creators can take existing themes to tweak to their own liking and (re-)share with others.

The grouping of the results and more details can be found in our meeting notes. Our full archive of meeting notes is also publicly viewable.

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§ 5 Responses to Rethinking themes in Firefox

  • Emanuele says:

    In the past I was very addicted to the themes (Skins) stuff… Nowadays I find it quite useless and a waste of time and resources, since the browser should appear clean, “professional” (I still remember skins like “noia”😛 ), neutral, and as much native as possible.

    Actually Opera is the one who achieve the goal better. Vivaldi is interesting, but it seems to me more a webapp than a system program. Firefox and Chrome simply don’t feel native and have a poor design

    Si, if FF ditches themes on a whole and redesigns the default one (in light/dark versions) to me it would be the best choice

  • I only use a theme because I want Firefox to look and behave live a native Gnome application.

    If Firefox looked less out-of-place by default, I wouldn’t use Firefox themes.

  • kairoat says:

    I have been active in the (full/”XUL”) themes space for all the 17 years I’ve been involved with with Mozilla community, and I have a few ideas on how we can make a new themes system that allows scaling from simple to powerful (“full”) theming, in a way that is simpler to maintain than old-style “XUL” full themes – feel free to reach out, I’m happy to discuss!

    • msujaws says:

      Thanks, please share either on this page as a comment or send an email as a reply to the firefox-dev posting.

  • […] And a blog post that interprets those results […]

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