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Tabs: truth, fiction and practical measures

My colleague Anda and I just had a good conversation about tabs, and specifically the company’s tabs component. I’ve mentioned before that our tabs are unconventional and potentially confusing, and Anda was interested to hear more.

What’s the purpose of a tabbed interface?

A tabbed interface is a space-saving tool for collapsing parallel content into panels, with one panel visible at a time but all accessible on-demand. While switching between tab panels the user is kept within the same wider context i.e. the same page, rather than being moved around.

Conventional tabbed interfaces

Here are some great examples of tabs components.

Tabs are a device intended to improve content density. They should deliver a same-page experience. Activating a tab reveals its corresponding tab panel. Ideally the approach employs progressive enhancement, starting as a basic Table of Contents. There’s quite a lot of advanced semantics, state and interactivity under the hood.

Faux tabs

But in our Design System at work, ours are currently just the “tabs” with no tab panels, and each “tab” generally points to another page rather than somewhere on the same page. In other words it’s a navigation menu made to look like a tabbed interface.

I’m not happy with this from an affordance point of view. Naming and presenting something as one thing but then having it function differently leads to usability problems and communication breakdowns. As the Inclusive Components Tabbed Interfaces page says:

making the set of links in site navigation appear like a set of tabs is deceptive: A user should expect the keyboard behaviors of a tabbed interface, as well as focus remaining on a tab in the current page. A link pointing to a different page will load that page and move focus to its document (body) element.

Confused language causes problems

One real-life problem with our tabs is that they have been engineered as if they are conventional tabs, however since the actual use case is often navigation the semantics are inappropriate.

We currently give each “tab” the ARIA tab role, defined as follows:

The ARIA tab role indicates an interactive element inside a tablist that, when activated, displays its associated tabpanel.

But our tabs have no corresponding tabpanel; they don’t use JavaScript for a single-page experience balancing semantics, interactivity and state as is conventional. They’re just navigation links. And this mismatch of tabs-oriented ARIA within a non-tabs use case will do more harm than good. It’s an accessibility fail.

A stop-gap solution

If content for one or more tabpanel is provided, apply the complicated ARIA attributes for proper tabs. If not, don’t. This means we allow component consumers to either create i) a real tabbed interface, or ii) “a nav menu that looks like tabs” (but without any inappropriate ARIA attributes). I don’t agree with the latter as a design approach, but that’s a conversation for another day!

Tabs in the future

Some clever people involved with Open UI are using web components to explore how a useful tabs element could work if it were an HTML element. Check out the Tabvengers’ spicy-sections component. Again, this is based on the conventional expectation of tabs as a same-page experience for arranging content, rather than as a navigation menu. And I think it’d make sense to stay on the same path as the rest of the web.

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