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21 January 2009, 12:57

Mozilla's Test Pilot to record user behaviour

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The Mozilla Test Pilot
The Mozilla Test Pilot
Since March 2008, developers at the Mozilla Foundation have been working on Test Pilot, a platform that will collect data to help improve their software. Mozilla aims to build a representative sample of Firefox users who are willing to provide data via an installed add-on that reflects how they interact with Mozilla software. Data will be gathered either through user responses to surveys, or be generated automatically. Mozilla is now seeking interested persons who would like to contribute their ideas to the project, either directly or via the Mozilla forums, IRC, or a Wiki. Applications are also being sought for the full-time position of "Test Pilot/Usability Catalyst", who will lead the Test Pilot program.

Mozilla's CEO, John Lilly, mentioned the Test Pilot platform in May last year, and he also spoke of his Spectator project, which uses an add-on to feed data back to Mozilla about a user's Firefox configuration. Experts in data protection are sceptical about the Mozilla Foundation's need to know more about its users and how, in general, they interact with the internet.

Mozilla wants to know such things as, on average, how many tabs users have open and how often they press the stop icon, or open a new search tab. Firefox developer Aza Raskin has now explained how quantitative answers to these questions could help the development of Firefox, pointing out that developers have hitherto had to rely on surveys, reports of practical experience, and feedback from new users.

The add-on is not intended to record data as a constant click-stream, but will instead respond to developers' specific requirements. In general, only anonymised data will be collected and will be published in aggregated form, under an open content licence. Raskin stresses that all data that could identify individual users will be weeded out. He adds that it may be possible to use notebook webcams to track Firefox users' eye movements. The test platform, he says, is designed so that it can in future be used by other Mozilla software, such as Thunderbird and SeaMonkey. Any interested researcher will be allowed to create research queries and, pending review, have them run.


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