Evaluating the End-User Experience of Private Browsing Mode

Ruba Abu-Salma, Benjamin Livshits

Nowadays, all major web browsers have a private browsing mode. However, the mode's benefits and limitations are not particularly understood. Through the use of survey studies, prior work has found that most users are either unaware of private browsing or do not use it. Further, those who do use private browsing generally have misconceptions about what protection it provides. However, prior work has not investigated \emph{why} users misunderstand the benefits and limitations of private browsing. In this work, we do so by designing and conducting a three-part study: (1) an analytical approach combining cognitive walkthrough and heuristic evaluation to inspect the user interface of private mode in different browsers; (2) a qualitative, interview-based study to explore users' mental models of private browsing and its security goals; (3) a participatory design study to investigate why existing browser disclosures, the in-browser explanations of private browsing mode, do not communicate the security goals of private browsing to users. Participants critiqued the browser disclosures of three web browsers: Brave, Firefox, and Google Chrome, and then designed new ones. We find that the user interface of private mode in different web browsers violates several well-established design guidelines and heuristics. Further, most participants had incorrect mental models of private browsing, influencing their understanding and usage of private mode. Additionally, we find that existing browser disclosures are not only vague, but also misleading. None of the three studied browser disclosures communicates or explains the primary security goal of private browsing. Drawing from the results of our user study, we extract a set of design recommendations that we encourage browser designers to validate, in order to design more effective and informative browser disclosures related to private mode.

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