Pop or popup?

Geocities, Tripod and numerous other places, you see the popup advertizing. This is not about those. This is about using popup windows in the design of your pages - what do you have to think about?

I started with a maybe provocative question in the header: Pop or popup? This would indicate that pages can't be popular at the same time as popup windows are used, but is the world that black and white? No, of course not. There are good ways to use it, and there are bad ways. The reason given for using popups may in some, or maybe many cases, tell us if it's put to good use.

I just read an interesting article about the use of splash pages, and there were some examples used. One of them used a popup window with a fixed size and no toolbar. The article had two comments to this approach: First, that it wasn't so dangerous to use javascript for this anymore, as almost no one use versions of Netscape or Explorer that doesn't support Javascript. Second, that extreme care must be taken if you remove the toolbar with the navigation buttons, as you have to replicate them in the design. Those comments I disagree with. Partly.

The naming of the "Two Big" browsers and their capabilities seems to be too common, despite that there are numerous browsers out there, but it is understandable. The fact is that the majority use browsers that do support Javascript these days. Does this mean you can ignore those who don't have the capability? Can they easily upgrade? Not neccessarily. People that use browsers without Javascript support these days, often do it because they have no choice. Are these uninteresting for you as visitors? Maybe they have special needs which normal browsers can't offer?

Even among those that do have Javascript support, there are many that won't be able to enjoy popup windows. Some are conscious and careful regarding the security and turn off the Javascript support. Many (corporate) users sit behind firewalls that filter away any Javascript (and more) because of the same security concerns. But still, you may decide that you want to target those who do use Javascript - they are after all in majority. So let's ignore the rest from here on.

The second comment in the article said to take extreme care in replicating the navigation abilities of the toolbar(s) in the design, should you choose to open a window without it. I must agree here. My gripe is in removing it/them in the first place. Sure, it gives you more space on the screen to play with, but opening a completely blank window - which is most usual - removes more than the navigation buttons; I can't see the url I'm on, the ability to print out pages is gone, so is the ability to bookmark pages. Everything is gone, and those are functions I really like to have.

So far, I've started out with negative comments. There will be positive ones too, but a few more critical thoughts first to make you think through the topic.

People like to be in control. People do not like to lose control. When a Javascript opens a new window, that is out of their control and is for many reason good enough not to like what happens. That's a feeling you want to avoid, and it is possible. First of all, think of the reasons why you want to open a new window.

The majority has Javascript
Bad reason. It is the same as to say "because I can" - not well thought out, and no thoughts of consequences.
You want as big space as possible for the design
Is it that dangerous to scroll? In that case maybe you should rethink the design.
You want to be in total control over how it looks.
Forget it. You can never have that much control. It can be frustrating for those who still try, and a joy for those who work with the medium
I want a "floating" menu
That may work very well, depending on how you do it.
What you have in mind needs it.
If you say so - but be careful how you do it.

What I have listed here are just a few reasons, but they should be enough to illustrate my points. The first three reasons typically takes control away from people. The browser suddenly does things they didn't expect, and in worst case leaves no options to go back either. The only way to get back to original state is to start the browser anew - but with the history of their previous visits gone. This often (almost always?) creates bad feelings, which should be avoided.

The two next reasons don't take away the control the same way, or at least don't have to. If the menu pops up without warning, many people will close the window automatically, as they do with advertizing - and maybe get a bit annoyed in the process, as with advertizing. If they have to click to let the menu appear, they're in control. They know what's going to happen, and they choose it themselves. Here it is important to remember not to base navigation on Javascript, but have some plain alternatives too. Some may choose not to use the popup menu - even if it offers benefits.

As for the stuff that needs a popup window, be sure to let people know it's them that are in control. Let them choose to click, and let them see why it is neccessary.

What we're left with is the following points:

  1. Never take control away from people
  2. Let people have a choice, even if it's "Enter or Leave"
  3. Let people know what's going to happen, and preferably why
  4. The new window must offer something of value, i.e. easier to use than not

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