Mozilla has found a way to make its Firefox browser feel faster without any engineering effort: tell people that it's faster than the competition.
In a research paper released on Wednesday, current and former researchers from the public benefit company, with the help of a Cornell academic, describe their effort to understand why Google's Chrome browser is so widely used "given that the performance of various browsers is rated as similar by industry reviewers."
In their paper titled, "'This Browser is Lightning Fast': The Effects of Message Content on Perceived Performance," Jess Hohenstein from Cornell, and Mozillans present and past Bill Selman, Gemma Petrie, Jofish Kaye, and Rebecca Weiss ask, "why is one browser experiencing much wider usage than others?"
Chrome has about 64 per cent of the global browser market share across all platforms, according to Stat Counter. And the second-place position of Apple's Safari, at roughly 19 per cent of the market, is due in large part to the restrictions Apple places on iOS browsers. Firefox currently has almost four per cent of the global browser market, about a third of a percentage point more than Microsoft's Edge.
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Rather than looking into Google's faster release cadence for Chrome, which forced Mozilla to accelerate its Firefox release schedule in 2011, the larger number of features in Chrome releases, organizational turmoil and missteps, talent departures and layoffs, Google's ability to promote Chrome on its search page, or corporate resource disparity, Mozilla's user-experience researchers decided to test various hypotheses about how people respond to "priming."
Priming, the paper explains, is a psychological phenomenon whereby people use the most immediately accessible information to make decisions. The researchers' supposition is that recent media exposure about a specific subject can alter people's judgements and opinions about that topic.
"We believe that previous research presents an opportunity to investigate the ability to contend with a dominant brand by priming users with messages about another brand to change their perceptions regarding performance," the paper explains.
To test their hypotheses, they looked at how 1,495 people perceived the performance of Firefox and Chrome, with and without reading a browser-related article beforehand.
Participants were shown one of three articles from popular news websites, about either self-driving cars, Firefox's user interface, or Firefox performance.
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Going into the test, people overall tended to view Chrome as faster than Firefox (~39 per cent to ~31 per cent). While the researchers noted that many participants brought their own strong brand preferences, priming participants had an effect that overcame the inertia of that affinity.
"When respondents read one of the priming articles, we saw a prevalence of the priming effect over brand preferences, providing support for the hypothesis that Firefox is faster after reading about Firefox improvements," the researchers said.
The UX boffins note that given Google's advertising market power, its coverage in the media, and its constant marketing messaging about Chrome's speed, they're not surprised that people assume Chrome is the fastest browser by default. But they claim that users who have been primed with an article about Mozilla Firefox are more likely to rate it as faster.
"This finding suggests that engaging with the media to present software as high-performing is an important step in influencing users’ perceptions of that browser," they conclude.
Marketing matters, apparently. ®