Profiles: the One Thing Firefox needs to get Right
If you’re not using Profiles on your browser, you’re missing out. If you’re using them on Firefox, you’re hurting but you don’t know it. If you stick to Safari, I’m so, so sorry.
When Profiles launched on Google Chrome, it was a game changer. I’ve often struggle to remember how I ever lived without this feature, but that may be because my use-case never demanded it. Until I started working.
To illustrate just how much I depend on being able to quickly bring up different browser identities, I have four profiles on Chrome on the laptop I’m currently working on. This reflects the distinct identities I’ve had to maintain online over the past year. On my old Mac, my main driver for the last six years, I have fourteen.
What’s a Profile?
I found a disturbing lack of understanding of (and appreciation for!) this feature from work colleagues, so I feel the need to spell out, ELI5-style, what Profiles are and why they matter.
If you’ve used any device that lets you log in to different user accounts, you know what Chrome’s Profiles are. Just as you can login to your PC as Alice, or Bob, Profiles let you open a new browser window as Alice, or Bob (though we’ll soon see it’s more like Alice₁, Alice₂, etc).
The use-case on the operating systems of most devices assumes that each user account is a different individual on some shared computer. A family PC is the most familiar incarnation. This likely isn’t the case for Profiles on a browser, an app generally expected to be used by one individual.
My browser use reflected this pattern of behaviour for most of my personal computing life, and I imagine it does same for the majority of people on their personal devices. It’s one of the reasons, I believe, that Profile switching on mobile devices isn’t really a thing. Unlike your shared family computer, smartphones are as personal as a device can get, and it is reasonable to assume that only one identity is needed for most of the life of the device.
Except when it’s not.
Work began in 2013 at MEST, and although I didn’t know it yet, managing distinct online identities became important. Doing so on a single device was even more crucial, since “work” would mean very different things, and with time, my personal device was going to become my “work computer”.
The reality took a while to dawn on me because everyone in my class was given a laptop to use for MEST-related work. I still had my personal computer for personal computing.
MEST, an entrepreneurial institution, encouraged just that: enterprising students going out and founding things. For many of us, the work those computers would do ceased being MEST-related in the strictest sense: every project/startup/company/“thing” would live on the same machine, usually in the same user account.
This also meant that all the online identities we had assumed — our MEST email accounts and those of the various projects that had gained traction — also needed to be managed, often from the same browser!
For me, this change in the way I used the browser finally hit home the day I started signing in to Chrome. Linking one Google account to my browser was a significant change in the way I saw it. My browser was no longer an anonymous window into the Interwebs. It had taken on a distinct identity: it no longer was a generic app on my laptop; it had become a window to the rest of the Internet that belonged to the owner of the linked account.
It no longer was an app I simply used to log into any accounts on the Web to do stuff in, because the identity of the browser’s apparent owner could change, and so would the things those owners cared about, which, for any reasonably well-ordered individual, maps onto what the browser was allowed to be aware of. My identity as a founder at Chillax (yes, we did that!) was not the same as the EIT I was at Meltwater, and it was not the same as the editor I was at Flash Fiction Ghana.
Crucially, none of those org-related identities were the same as me, this individual, exploring new hobbies, shitposting on social media and managing my personal finances through the same browser app.
The Profile Switcher Demographic
The primal urge to compartmentalise is strong with me. Someone on the Chrome team felt this way too, because I stumbled on the somewhat hidden feature that will forever change my relationship with browsers.
It was like one of those puzzle pieces that fits into a space of which you were never conscious, sort of like the Jobsian ideal of knowing what the user needs before they do. It only took me a moment to dispense with Google’s account switcher interface and fully adopt different browser instances that could explicitly assume the different identities of those accounts I would have been switching between.
This allowed complete isolation of my online identities. Among other quality of life improvements, it ensured that my browser histories will not be polluted, and bookmarks will remain relevant to my browsing context.
To my specific situation, this meant that accounts I had signed in to could remain so on the relevant browser Profiles, that their credentials will be saved in the relevant browser, or with the right Google accounts and, in those cases where the linked-to accounts were accessed by multiple people, no personal account passwords will be shared to them.
This also meant that when I was done with work and I closed my work Profile browsers, I will not see autocomplete suggestions from previous working days while I was winding down for weekend or after-hours browsing. It also meant that, while at work, my private business will not leak, a remedy against awkward moments when projecting or presenting my desktop to mates and clients.
More on that: I once worked with a software engineer — let’s call him Charles — on a project for a few months. This was entirely remote, at my insistence, and all meetings were done over Google Meet. At our first meeting, my self and the rest of the gang joined the call on time, and waited a few minutes for Charles to show up.
Our pre-meeting conversation was interrupted with a pop-up: Angela Dadzie wants to join the call. Internally we all must have screamed Who the hell is Angela Dadzie?!, but no one peeped. A phone call later, and Charles (sometimes known as Angela, or whichever private client’s Google account he was currently signed in to) joined us for his first meeting with the rest of the team.
Please, don’t do what he did.
I’ve had my fair share of identity-based embarrassments, usually on Zoom calls. Identity switching on Zoom isn’t as baked-in as Google Chrome’s, so I have carelessly announced my place of work and email address on forums that had absolutely no reason to know this. This is an argument for the need for isolation that clearly extends beyond the browser, which I will lay out in some subsequent essay.
Chrome FTW (or “Where Firefox Fails”, or “Shame on you, Safari”)
My kindred spirit on the Chrome team doubled down on Profiles. After a while of using and advocating for the somewhat obscure feature, a new update seemed to bring it to the fore of the product’s use.
A Profile Switcher now lived right beside the address bar, almost like it was reminding you, just when you started typing, that you might want to check if you shouldn’t be searching for that in the right profile…
If you signed in to Chrome, the product cared enough to show you the state of your account syncing. It also provided quick links to typical profile-specific settings: passwords, payment methods, and saved addresses. Someone actually cared about this stuff.
I also noticed that, by default, Chrome didn’t assume my identity; on app start, it asked me, who do we want to be today? Someone actually cared about this stuff.
In the middle of all that goodness was a fact I could not run away from; that Chrome was a resource hog, and I needed something that will be kinder to my aging hardware. That’s when I switched to Firefox.
To answer the “Why didn’t you use Safari?” question: in spite of how well-behaved that browser is, the lack of Profiles was the show-stopper. I literally only use Safari when watching a WWDC live stream. I’m a great lover of first-party, vendor-provided tools. I would love to use devices as the manufacturers want me to experience them, but Apple is so out of touch with my reality I actively dislike many of their product decisions. More on that later.
Firefox, it turned out, had browser Profiles. This feature was more obscure than Chrome’s first iteration, and its implementation has made it feel like an afterthought. This is an important distinction.
It didn’t matter at first when I ditched Chrome, because Firefox does some things very well. You get a sane Download Manager that lets you pause and resume downloads when it’s supported by your server. You also get Picture-in-Picture for most online videos; it’s hit-or-miss, but generally hit on the sites I use most of the time.
Even with Google products not playing nice with Firefox, the need to be kind to my hardware, the novelty of my return to Mozilla and the mission to support a “free” browser kept me loyal for at least two years.
Then one day, I found that in the context-menu that pops up when you right-click a link in Google Chrome, you could actually open said link in a different Profile.
In a world where We, The People™, are served by massive, faceless corporations making products for billions of humans, tiny gestures from the things they give us can stand out in a sea of ill-fitting sameness. A wow-moment happens when a product seems to get the nuances of your use-case, such that it adapts itself to your reality, rather than shoe-horn you into its vision of how you should live and work. Looking hard at you, Apple.
The apparent afterthoughtishness of the Firefox implementation of Profiles, compared to how Google Chrome was evolving that feature seemed to tell me one thing about the latter: Someone actually cared about this stuff. Coupled with the small fact of the pandemic rendering me home-bound, and so my laptops were essentially always plugged in, I returned to heavy Chrome use, and I’ve never looked back. Except when I wanted a sensible Download Manager and PiP.
It’s Not Me, It’s You
I’ve commented publicly about this before, and alternatives have been thrown my way. No, they do not work. You don’t get it.
A lot of people I’ve spoken to did not have enough of an appreciation of the need for isolation to begin with (in many aspects of life, not just personal computing) so my point of view is dead-on-arrival.
A few have cited Firefox Containers and related extensions that sort of compartmentalise your browsing life. I remember a hissy-fit thrown against Facebook several years ago in the wake of which Firefox Containers were pushed with a ton of pro-privacy virtue. Containers, in principle, are fine wherever they appear, but it beats me that the folks at Firefox chose to run with containerised tabs to achieve this end.
That’s too subtle for me, and very easy to miss. I prefer the simple, explicit solution of just giving me an entirely different browser instance. You know how you can open an Incognito/Private window to do your business in? Yes, but for Profiles, thank you very much.
Profiles, as is currently implemented on Firefox lives behind
about:profiles, one of those internal URLs literally no one intends to go to, because, you know, Profile switching isn’t important to Firefox. Go use Containers instead.
For my use-case, I bookmarked the url, and made it my homepage, so I could always access it. I even made it a pinned tab once, but a Firefox update forgot about that. Now, you do get a Profile Switcher on start up, but that’s the only time you’ll see it. The assumption, it seems, is that you’ll only really need to easily pick a Profile when you initially open the app. If you wanted to switch to another Profile, go to
On a Mac, each Firefox Profile in use appears as a different browser on your Dock. This means, at the height of my day, I could have as many as three different Firefox icons on my dock, each looking exactly like the other, with no clear way of knowing which Profile each represented. Besides the ugly clutter, this little detail (a thing Chrome addressed in the early days on Windows) seemed to tell me one thing: No one actually cared about this stuff.
They cared enough about protecting you from Facebook that they promoted Containers, and the Multi-Account Container extension. But Profiles? Ah, screw you!
I hate to sound ungrateful. The folks at Mozilla have done a lot for humanity and the Internet. I hope they get their act together so they remain The Good Guys™ of the World Wide Web. The point I wish to make is just how far reaching little product decisions are, especially for users who care a lot about the things they use.
I think every product person knows this inherently, but seeing this play out on a specific, somewhat obscure feature on a much used application, I think, is an exercise everyone who makes things should go through. I have a lot to say about how humans relate to products, and if there isn’t a lot of research into the psychology of product-use, well, we should fund this!
For the professional, this essay is also a reflection on an aspect of “seriousness” that might be easy to overlook. I get it, not many of us are sophisticated users of personal computing, but everyone has the right to not be embarrassed by the tech they use. Please, don’t let your browser history, identity or whatnot leak into another context. And don’t join a meeting on someone else’s Google Account.
If anyone on the Chrome team reads this, thank you!
If you enjoyed this, let me know.