August 8, 2011

The Decline and Fall of The URL

The URL is a very powerful concept; it represents a universal way to access any resource anywhere in the world. Here’s one of them, as it appears in Firefox 5’s address bar:

Address bar containing

The first few letters before the colon are called the protocol, which tells the computer how to interpret the rest of the URL. The http protocol is the most common and specifies a resource on the World Wide Web, while the tel protocol specifies a telephone number, and https specifies a resource on the Web transferred over a secure channel that can’t be eavesdropped. Those are just a few; there’s lots of other ones.

Many user interface designers for browsers believe that most users don’t understand what a protocol is, which is probably accurate. Google Chrome’s solution is to hide the protocol when it’s http, but to display the protocol in all other cases. Firefox is now adopting the same behavior.

There’s a number of things that trouble me about this approach. I’ve already written about the behavioral impacts, whereby user expectations of copy-paste are broken and a confusing mode is introduced. Furthermore, because protocol information is still displayed for any non-http resource, understanding how to read the address bar is (ironically) made more complex.

Aside from those concerns, however, there’s something else I’m worried about. The main argument I’ve heard against exposing protocol information to end-users is that, if we present it, we might as well present all kinds of other information about the TCP connection, CPU registers, and other obscure technical statistics.

Now, I know I’m biased because I’m on the Hackasaurus team and trying to teach people the basics of HTML and CSS, but browsers have historically been very friendly to learning web-making, in part because they keep protocol information in the address bar. My guess is that removing the http:// neither helps nor hinders someone from using the basics of the web—but it definitely makes it harder to learn what hypertext is.

Understanding technology is relative. Someone can know the basics of writing an anchor tag without knowing what TCP/IP is, and it’s still quite empowering, in much the same way that it’s empowering to know how to grill vegetables without necessarily knowing everything about the chemical reactions taking place underneath.

Doing little things in the interface that promote transparency and help people move from being a web-user to a web-maker is important, so long as we don’t make things difficult for the people that just want to be users. I’ve never found my parents or other non-technical users to be confused by the presence of http://, which is part of why I don’t see much gain in removing it—especially given the behavioral shortcomings of this change. Far more exciting to me is the exact opposite approach: designing experiences to help users understand what the URL in their address bar means, and encouraging them to create things on the Web instead of just browse.

© Atul Varma 2021