My thoughts on the Firefox download manager

February 16, 2010

The Firefox UX team is working on fixing the download manager. I haven’t actually seen what they’re planning yet, but Limi invited me to tell him what I thought. So here it goes:

The separate window sucks. Google Chrome has a tab for the download history which definitely is an improvement over the separate window, and it allows you to search downloads.

There are two cases that should IMHO be handled differently:

  1. downloads that result in the opening of a program (e.g. PDF)
  2. downloads that just drop a file in a directory

For a) you don’t really need that many visual cues. Add an entry somewhere to the download history so you can find it later, but that’s all. The user doesn’t need to or want to do much else. The file opens in another program, case closed. The b) case, however, often concerns long-running downloads, and they definitely require more user action when they’re done. Here the UI should be as non-intrusive as possible, allowing the user to continue working while still giving feedback on the download’s progress.

Personally I use the Download Statusbar extension. It gets the workflow for b) pretty much right IMHO: There’s non-intrusive visual feedback at the bottom of the screen, so I can continue doing something else. Once the download is done I can come back to it without having to check a separate window or tab. Once I double click on the file to open it, it disappears from the download bar. So it’s gone from my “todo list” of downloads to process (it’s still in the download history, though). This is definitely better than having a manual Clear button.

A really nice feature, particularly for the a) case, would be if the download history was actually put to use. Here’s something that happens to me a lot: I open a scientific paper (PDF) from the web in Preview.app. At some later point I read another paper and it refers to the first one. The hyperlink in the references takes me to some page where, unaware that I downloaded it already, I end up getting a PDF I have on disk already. It would be very cool if Firefox recognised this and, instead of dropping another PDF turd in my directory, just opened the original download. Of course you’d need to check Last-Modified headers etc., and perhaps there could be a simple enough option to force a re-download.

To summarise, I would do this:

  • The download history (née Download Manager) is in a tab, searchable, and there’s no Clear button (much like your page history it could be cleared from Preferences).
  • Downloads that open in a program get an entry in the history but no visual cues. If people want to revisit the file, they could simply go to the page they got it from and Firefox would search in its own download history for them. Of course, they can always manually search the download history as well.
  • Progress for downloads that are long-running and/or don’t open in a program is shown in a non-intrusive way (e.g. some bar on the bottom). Double clicking or having the file exposed in Finder/Explorer will clear them off this bar, but of course not from download history.

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