Mozilla Looking to Tag Along

Figuring out how your customers use your products — and by extension, how to improve user experience — can be a tricky process to navigate. Focus groups have their flaws, surveys suffer from selective memory, and peeping over shoulders could plant one in the penitentiary. The browser-makers at Mozilla, though, are hoping to put an Open Source spin on the process, expecting to release within the next few weeks a plugin to gather usage data from volunteers.

The plan, which is entirely opt-in and requires installing a plugin to participate, has been dubbed Test Pilot by Mozilla Labs, and hopes to provide volumes of useful information for Mozilla developers and outside researchers. Volunteers will initially be asked to provide a limited amount of information for demographic purposes, then will install Test Pilot and browse as usual. Additional "experiments and tests" will follow, and the participants will have the opportunity to choose whether or not to take part in a given exercise. All information submitted by the plugin will be anonymized and in aggregate, while potentially sensitive information, like individual web addresses, will be tracked with the use of hashes and other anonymizing technology. In this way, usage data — how often a user returned to a previously visited website, for example — can be collected without revealing the website in question.

Mozilla Labs' user experience chief, Aza Raskin, was quick to point out the transparency provided by Mozilla's Open Source approach. "One of the great things about Firefox and Mozilla is that you don't have to take [our word] on faith. There are no secrets with open source. In Test Pilot, the source [code] and the data will be open." Unlike proprietary code, which may hide any manner of surreptitious data collection, users skeptical of Test Pilot will have the ability to see for themselves exactly what the code is doing. How much effect these and other steps to protect user privacy will have on the project's reception remains to be seen.

Mozilla execs are expecting the program to provide information that can be used not only to improve Firefox, but other Mozilla products, browser extensions, and spawn new products as well. Raskin pointed to the enlarged back button included with the Firefox 3 release as an example of feedback-driven change — user experience data showed higher use of the back button than forward, prompting the change. Mozilla hopes 1% of the browser's users can be convinced to take part in Test Pilot, a grand undertaking indeed, considering that estimates exceeded 125 million users over a year ago.

The issue of privacy is one that can get just about anyone's hackles up, and this one is likely to be no different. Whether it be companies hemorrhaging credit card details or covert keylogging as you browse the reasons to worry about where ones data is going are legion. Mozilla is, at least, definitely stepping off with the right foot, being open from the beginning, opting-in rather than out, making strides to balance privacy and progress, and maintaining the transparency and openness that is a cornerstone of Open Source projects.

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Justin Ryan is a Contributing Editor for Linux Journal.

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