Debugging WebExtension Popups

Note: In the time since I last posted here I have been doing a bit more hands-on web development [for example, on the View Source website]. Naturally this has led me to learn new things. I have learned a few things that may be new to others, too. I’ll drop those here when I run across them.


I have been looking for a practical way to learn about WebExtensions, the new browser add-on API in Firefox. This API is powerful for a couple reasons: It allows add-on developers to build add-ons that work across browsers, and it’s nicer to work with than the prior Firefox add-on API (for example, it watches code and reloads changes without restarting the browser).

So I found a WebExtensions add-on to hack on, which I’ll probably talk about in a later post. The add-on has a chrome component, which is to say it includes changes to the browser UI. Firefox browser chrome is just HTML/CSS/JavaScript, which is great. But it took me a little while to figure out how to debug it.

The tools for doing this are all fairly recent. The WebExtension documentation on MDN is fresh from the oven, and the capabilities shown below were missing just a few months ago.

Here’s how to get started debugging WebExtensions in the browser:

First, enable the Browser Toolbox. This is a special instance of Firefox developer tools that can inspect and debug the browser’s chrome. Cool, eh? Here’s how to make it even cooler:

  • Set up a custom Firefox profile with the Toolbox enabled, so you don’t have to enable it every time you fire up your development environment. Consider just using the DevPrefs add-on, which toggles a variety of preferences (including Toolbox) to optimize the browser for add-on development.
  • Once you have a profile with DevPrefs installed, you can launch it with your WebExtension like so: ./node_modules/.bin/web-ext run --source-dir=src --firefox-binary {path to firefox binary} --firefox-profile {name of custom profile} (See the WebExtensions command reference for more information.

Next, with the instance of Firefox that appears when you run the above command, go to the Tools -> Web Developer -> Browser Toolbox menu. A window should appear that looks just like a standard Firefox developer tools window. But this window is imbued with the amazing ability to debug the browser itself. Try it: Use the inspector to look at the back button!

browser_toolbox

In that window you’ll see a couple small icons near the top right. One looks like a waffle. This button makes the popup sticky — just like a good waffle. This is quite helpful, since otherwise the popup will disappear the minute you try to inspect, debug, or modify it using the Browser Toolbox.

popup_sticky

Next to the waffle is a button with a downward arrow on it. This button lets you select which content to debug — so, for example, you could select the HTML of your popup. When you have a sticky popup selected, you can inspect and hack on its HTML and CSS just like you would any other web content.

content_selector

This information is now documented in great detail on MDN. Check it out!

Debugging WebExtension Popups