To Pop or Not to Pop: When to Use Pop Up Windows

A question that frequently comes up during web site design and implementation projects is if and when to use pop up windows. When I refer to pop up windows, I am not referring to the light boxes or other dialogs that display to ask a question that you need to answer to continue or cancel a process. Instead I am referring to popping up little (or large) windows that contain additional necessary information to continue or supplement what is going on within the context of what the user is currently doing. So, the simple answer of when to use pop ups is: virtually never. But if you choose to use them, here are some of the basic pitfalls to avoid:

  1. Not including browser controls in a pop up window.
  2. Putting links in a small pop up window.
  3. Putting a large amount of content in a tiny pop up window.
  4. Breaking the user flow (and back button) by launching new windows with every click of the mouse.
  5. Search engines will not index the content.

These are just a few of the flaws that sites oftentimes contain with respect to popping up windows. Lets explore a few of them before discussing the very limited set of circumstances where you should use pop-ups. The first is not including browser controls on a pop up window. This is a substantial usability error. First, if you are going to provide any links within the window, how is a user supposed to get back to the previous page. The back button is the most used button on any piece of software in the world. Why break it? Sure the user can use the right click menu, but most users either don’t know about it or wouldn’t think of it and Mac most Mac users don’t have that option. Futhermore, what if the page failed to load correctly for some reason? We have all had this happen. The user would not be able to refresh the page. The Sprint PCS site is a great example of this. The picture shows a logged in view of my account. When a user clicks to view his bills he gets a small pop up that looks like this picture: When one of the links is clicked a PDF(an issue for another day)is displayed in the tiny little browser window. If the wrong bill is chosen or the user was not sure of the month of the transaction of interest, he would have to then close the window, re-pop up the window, re-launch a different PDF and hope that was the right one. Not a good user experience. The second and third issues are that people put links to other content in small pop up windows. The Sprint example works here as well, although you see this error on virtually every site with pop ups. Am I really going to view my entire bill in a tiny little window? No. The user can maximize the window or increase the size of the window if they want you say? Why bother making them? Why not just use the browser in the first place and not launch a new window? The reality is that it is probably due to a default setting in the backend billing system they use (maybe Checkfree), but that is no excuse not to fix it. Another typical usability error is to automatically pop up a window. For years, CNN.com launched a pop up to allow users to choose US or International edition and pop up blockers prevented it from being seen. They have finally fixed this in their recent redesign and simply show it on the page: Another major usability flaw with respect to pop ups is to continually launch new windows breaking the user’s ability to easily use the back button. Launching one new window is one thing. But if you are launching more windows than that you are forcing the user to figure out which window which content is in. Odds are they have other windows open on their computer as well. Furthermore, you break the back button and force users to constantly move the mouse to the upper right corner to close the window and then back down in the the browser to interact with the page. I once watched an incredibly web-savvy ad agency executive be completely confused by constantly clicking a link that was opening in another tab on the browser. He did not realize this and eventually closed the whole browser down and re-opened everything…during the middle of a presentation. If a web-savvy exec is having trouble, how about your less skilled users? And, finally, the last issue with pop ups is that the content within pop ups will not be indexed by search engines unless it is linked to elsewhere on the site. There are, of course, a LIMITED set of circumstances under which popping up a window is acceptable. I hesitate to say pop up as well in that simply using the link attribute ‘target=”_blank”‘ to “launch” a new window is often a better approach because javascript pop ups are often blocked. The circumstances are as follows: First, the amount of information in the pop up is so small that it fits in a small pop up and has no links. Good examples are the definition of a word or simple contact information or a small tip about using a site. However, if possible, I would suggest using a rollover for this type of information so that a user doesn’t even have to bother clicking a link. Second, if there is a need to preview content or compare something side-by-side and it won’t fit in the same browser pane, then it is acceptable to pop up a new window. For instance, when editing your resume on Monster.com or configuring something that you need to see how it looks (like “Previewing” your blog which blogger.com actually does in the same pane these days). Third, if the user has done a significant amount of work to configure a page (say running a detailed flight search on Kayak.com), and there is a chance that work may be lost or the page is better served as a jumping off point to investigate multiple options, then using a pop up may be appropriate. Overall, the web is littered with pop ups that yield poor user experience. When in doubt, don’t use them. If its good enough for Google not to use then, then it should be good enough, in most cases, for your site as well.

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About Scott

Scott Barnard is the founder of The Usability Review and RememberStuff.com. After earning 2 degrees from MIT, he transplanted to the San Francisco Bay Area where he had a front row seat to the dot com boom and bust and the subsequent growth in importance of web, mobile and desktop application designs to the everyday activities of businesses and consumers alike. Get in touch with Scott if you'd like to hire him to consult on web, mobile app, or desktop application design at sbarnard@theusabilityreview.com.
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