Differentiate Environments With Different Favicons

Sally has been tasked with making the commenting feature in her company’s webapp be threaded up to 5 levels instead of only 2 levels. As she makes adjustments to the code, she collects an unprecedented number of browser tabs. Some of them point at her company’s production site, while others point at her development environment. In many of them, she enabled “super-user” mode, so she could more freely play with her app while making her changes.

So she goes on coding and messing with the data for most of the afternoon. She’s about ready to wrap up and head home for the evening when her boss walks in and asks, “Sally, lots of comments have gone missing. Do you know what happened?” Sally felt like she had swallowed a sack of doorknobs. In the midst of her coding spree, she mixed up some of her browser tabs and accidentally deleted live data. A lot of live data.

At Causes, I often have a number of tabs open. Much like Sally, many of these are pointed at my development environment or the production environment. While I haven’t been as unfortunate as Sally and accidentally done something in production, I noticed that I spent a fair amount of time searching through my tabs for the one I was looking for. When pairing with my colleagues, I noticed that they were spending a good amount of time doing the same thing. Although it wasn’t a serious time commitment by any means, it slowed me down regularly. Sometimes, it was enough of a speed bump that took me out of my flow. I decided that there must be a way to improve this situation.

The browser gives you two pieces of information in the tab: the page title and the favicon. This information should provide you with enough context for you to make a decision as to which tab you want to foist your full attention.

Since page titles are often the same between environments, that’s not a very useful way to differentiate between these types of tabs out of the box. I considered adding a prefix to the page title in development, as you might see with subject lines on email lists, but page titles are often hidden when you have lots of tabs open. Additionally, page titles feel like page-specific content, and we typically like things like that to be as similar as possible between development and production.

Then I realized that we could pack this information into our favicon. The favicon is the perfect place to put this because they are often indicators of a domain, not a page. Also, favicons are the last piece of information to be hidden when opening definitely way too many tabs.

I hit the command line and simply inverted the colors on our production favicon using ImageMagick, added some configuration to our development environment to use the inverted image, and I was up and running. Now it is much easier to figure out which tab is the one I am looking for.

In a Rails environment, for example, you can make this magic happen by first defining a constant in your application configuration that points to the location of your production favicon file.

FAVICON = 'icons/favicon.png'

And in your development environment configuration, override this constant to point to a different favicon file:

FAVICON = 'icons/favicon-inverted.png'

Then simply consume the constant in your layouts and you should be good to go.

This quick adjustment is so easy to do and will make you and your team a little bit faster every single day. It might even prevent some headaches. And, don’t worry about Sally—thankfully she had only soft-deleted the comments. All of the data was easily restored.

Joe Lencioni