Refresh: Rethinking The Browser

{ 🌐 } – The Web Browser Of The Future

Look at your web browser’s tab bar. How many tabs do you have opened? I normally keep a 5-tab maximum, but some of you might have 10 or more.

Some of those tabs are probably work-related, others are not. Does it ever get messy and annoying?

Web browsers are due for a breakthrough. We’ve been waiting for one, since the introduction of Chrome. So, what’s next? What can make web surfing more fun and efficient?

Julius Gehrig and Julius Sohn, creators of a Refresh browser concept, have come up with some great ideas.

You can also give our interview with them a listen. Be sure to subscribe to Phase Magazine on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Daniel: Can you introduce yourself?

Julius Gehrig: I’m Julius Gehrig. I’m a product designer, I’ve just graduated from the university, and I wrote my thesis together with another Julius.

Julius Sohn: I have a very similar story. I’m also a product designer, I’m also Julius, and I graduated together with Julius two weeks ago.

You have created a concept of a product that everyone is super excited about – Refresh browser. Can you introduce our readers and listeners to it?

JG: Refresh is our bachelor degree thesis that we published at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. It’s a concept for what a modern web browser could look like.

Web browsers haven’t changed that much in the recent years. Refresh tries to solve some unaddressed user needs through the user interface and interaction design.

Why did you choose to work on a web browser concept for your thesis?

JS: In the beginning, we did a lot of brainstorming around what we wanted to do. We came to a point when we just wanted to pick something that people use every day, the basic concept of which hadn’t been updated in recent years.

So we came across a web browser. It hasn’t really changed for quite a few years, and its interaction concepts have been the same since the invention of the Internet.

We thought there was a lot of room for new ideas here.

JG: Every other month there is a new email client, and they all start based on the same promise, that email hasn’t really changed in the past 20 years.

We find it weird that the same things aren’t happening in the web browser space.

What was the design process of creating the concept of Refresh browser?

JG: We met our first semester at the university, so we have worked on a lot of projects together. Pretty much every project. We are a well-played team in that sense. We both know our strengths.

Our process for Refresh started by trying to figure out how can we approach all the web browsing problems that we found during our research.

We tried few innovation methods that allowed us to look at things in a bit of a different way. One of them is called the re-expression method, where you take a feature you work on, and you try to look for synonyms for it. Like history – that could be a journal, a timeline, something about time travel. Based on those words you start to look at features differently.

We roughly sketched our ideas on paper not, to get lost in details. After that, it’s a really fluid process for us.

JS: It’s also important to mention the format how our university organizes the bachelor semester. It’s split into 2 parts – you write your theory in 2-3 months, and then you do the practical part in 3 months. It really forces you to do a lot of research first. Two-to-three months of just reading stuff, doing surveys, and learning a lot of things.

In the second part, we used innovation methods to come up with solutions to the problems we’d found.

What are the major problems of web browsers nowadays? Why do they exist?

JG: When we were done with our theory part, we tried to narrow them all down to 3 core problem areas that we wanted to tackle.

The first of them was tab management. We use web browsers for private and work use, and we have a lot of tabs opened the whole time. Everyone knows this problem, but it’s somehow taken for granted. There is no real innovation in user interfaces around that.

The second one we called saving and recalling information. Browsers have a lot of features to save links for you. You have bookmarks, reading list, and your favorites. Very few people have a system to manage that, though. Most people just leave tabs opened. We wanted to make it easier to save and recall information.

The third one was context sensitivity. The browser detects when the website is mostly text, so you probably want to read it. Then it might offer you a reading mode, with just text.

What are the Spaces, how do they work, and what problems do they solve?

JS: They solve two problems – tab management, and saving or recalling. A Space is a collection of opened tabs, saved sites, and your browsing history. Instead of tab overview that exists in Safari, you have Space overview, where you have opened tabs on top and saved sites at the bottom. When you save a site, it’s going to be added to your current Space and automatically categorized.

It also generates a smart preview of the website. Depending on the content inside, it can show you estimated reading time, play time for music, price, etc.

You can create one Space for your private browsing, one for work, one for your bachelor research, and so on. It allows you to keep all things separate.

Refresh Browser features on iPad
Refresh Browser

How did you tweak browsing history?

JG: We thought that history has a lot of potential. There is so much information there, but the only thing that you get is this list with timestamps. If you really know what you want to find there, it’s possible, but it doesn’t really invite you to browse it.

We thought it could be more like infographics. It’s a Gantt chart view. It shows you a flow from page to page – how long did you stay on one site, and what tabs did you have open at the same time. It’s more visual. It’s like reading a timetable for train departure times.

JS: The other feature that we added to the history is time travel. You can drag the time marker to any point on the timeline and restore tabs that you had open at that time.

How does context sensitivity work? Does it also work like a search engine?

JS: So search engine is a different feature, but it’s also based on the context sensitivity. It’s a tag search, that lets you search your history using tags.

Sometimes when you’re trying to open the previously-viewed website, you may not know the exact name, but you remember when or where you opened it. You can use location and time-based tags.

JG: We think that tags can be really powerful, but a lot of people are not using them, because they have to set them manually.

We actually got the idea from Apple Photos, where you can combine different tags to search. Those are generated based on the metadata of the photos.

I could tell that you got the idea from Apple Photos.

JG: Refresh is based on iOS Safari. We didn’t want to reinvent the whole branding. When we started working on the concept, we analyzed a lot of iPad apps to find cool patterns and inspirations. I was really excited about my iPad at that time.

Spaces in Refresh
Spaces in Refresh

How would you approach user privacy? Especially having all of the context-aware features.

JS: During our process, we had some privacy features in mind, and we developed some of those, but in the end, we decided not to include them.

First of all, user privacy is a very technical thing, and we didn’t want to collect the best features from other browsers and just put them together. We wanted to focus on the user experience and user’s needs that we recognized.

Were there more inspirations?

JG: Two inspirations that we always like to point out are from the other design bachelor thesis papers. We’d found two great ones that are focused on digital design, both by German design students.

One is called Artifacts, and it’s by 3 students from the University of Design Schwaebisch Gmuend. It’s a very fascinating look at how photo and file management could look different. It’s also an iPad app. The thesis is incredible – it’s 200 beautifully designed pages.

JG: The other one is called Desktop Neo. It’s a fascinating case study of how desktop user interface could be reimagined if we weren’t so married to the whole windows-based concept.

What’s your favorite web browser?

JS: We are both Safari users. I had actually switched back from Chrome again a few weeks ago. We learned that there’s no such a thing as a perfect web browser. Everybody uses them for totally different things. It’s like asking ‘what’s the best car’ or ‘what’s the best t-shirt.’ It’s up to the user how he or she utilizes it for his/her work.

JG: I also use Safari, mainly just out of convenience, because I have an iPhone, iPad, and a Mac. It’s a very personal choice, and it also depends on what you do. If you’re a web developer, you are most likely to use Chrome. If you’re all about privacy, you will probably use Firefox.

Web browser choice really says a lot about you, and there is space for personal expression here. We are Safari guys because we are boring and we like convenience.

JS: So what’s your favorite browser? Ping us on Twitter!

Tag-based Search in Refresh
Tag-based Search in Refresh

Did you have any mentor or advisor? What was the most valuable feedback that you got from them?

JG: We had 2 main mentors – one professor from our university, Andreas Ingerl, and Hans Pagel, who runs an agency in Berlin called Überdosis. We met up with the professor once a month to update him, but he mainly let us do what we wanted. He trusted in our process.

The best piece of advice that we got was from Hans. It was a month before we finished our thesis. We were so used to doing flashed-out designs, that we wanted to work on every small detail. He advised us to just focus on the essential things that are core ideas of Refresh.

JS: We remade our website 3 times. The first one looked like Apple product page. This is also what Hans told us, to make it look more like a thesis.

What kind of feedback did you get after going viral? Have you been working on the concept since then?

JS: We were surprised by the feedback because there was pretty much no negative one. Usually, once you publish concept like this, people are pretty blunt.

JG: We even got nice YouTube comments!

JS: Most of the critical comments were from the developers who were more focused on the implementation and development part.

We didn’t really work on the concept since launching the website.

JG: I went for a vacation for a month and was just checking my phone while being in Thailand. People were really supportive, wanted to sign up for beta access. We even got 1 or 2 applications to work for us. We had not expected anything like this.

Is Refresh ever going to be launched?

JG: We don’t really know yet. At the point when we published it, we had no intentions of ever building it. Now, with all of those people asking us to, we started thinking about it.

It’s a tough thing. Founding a company is stressful, selling such a niche product is also hard. You also can’t just change your default browser on iPad.

We are probably not going to start a company around it, but we are exploring other options how we could make this a real thing. We are talking to people who manage open source projects. We had developers asking us if we need help developing it. We have no experience with that, so we are exploring different ideas before we even start working on anything.

Context-aware features of Refresh
Context-aware features of Refresh

What will be the future of web browsers? What trends are we going to see in that area?

JS: It is said that classic web browsing is kind of dead and apps are the future. I think some type of web browser will still be there in the years to come.

Especially for small businesses, the web is a platform where everyone can exist for a little money, instead of building an expensive app. It’s hard to say how exactly the future is going to look like.

JG: What is really cool about web browsers is that people can use them regardless of the operating system. Maybe on some cheaper and older Android phones websites won’t render that well, but you can adjust to it. I hope it’s not going to go away.

We see some things coming, though. Like with web payment APIs – those 3rd-party software features could be implemented in browsers in the future. I can’t say how UI and UX are going to change. Maybe we are going to see AR and VR features.

Do you have any advice for students working on their own thesis? How to create something that will have such an impact?

JS: First thing that we realized is not to always try to change the world. There are many bachelor thesis papers like that out there.

There are so many users needs just in front of you, and there is so much to tackle. You can just pick something and try to find a good solution.

JG: We can just go on about these. After publishing the thesis, we started thinking about what we learned from it. One piece of advice is to try and find something that people care about.

It can be small, but meaningful. It’s also important to work on the thesis with someone that you have a good connection with, like your friend. It helps you stay motivated and makes the whole process more enjoyable.

Also, put as much effort into the presentation and share-ability of your thesis as you put into the product. From the beginning we had put aside the time to develop the website, just to make it nice so that people could share it. Especially, the video helped us a lot. People don’t really like reading, but they love videos. Make a video – that’s my tip.

JS: I think the presentation was crucial. Not just in the way of the shareability, but also regarding the feedback that we got. Many people liked it because it was really easy to consume.

JG: People feel that you care about them if you present it in a way that’s easily digestive. Even people who don’t care about web browsers started to pay attention to it.

You can actually do that with a lot of topics that seem very nerdy. Try to make them more accessible for average people.

Thanks, guys! Was great to have you. I hope that Refresh is going to come to life and good luck with it. Is there anything that you want to plug in?

JG: I work at a company called Pitch, and we just launched our first preview-website today. We are working on the next generation presentation software. You should check that out.

JS: I’m looking for a room in San Francisco starting from mid-November. If anybody has a tip, DM me!

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Nick Budden Avatar

Nick Budden / CEO @ Phase

Designer, and sometimes-writer. Canadian in Taiwan ✈ Berlin. Trying to help people enjoy being creative.