I Love Research That Re-enforces My Intuition

jakob-nielsen_cropped.jpg.400x400_q95_crop_upscaleYou know when you do something that feels right and then feel nobody listens to your advice? Yet, you’re the “expert” and really everyone else should listen to you and follow your lead?

Today we still have clients specifically ask to make sure certain links “open in new window/tab”, or target=”_blank” a href, when adding specific hyperlinks. We try and tell them, we don’t love that behavior, as it’s best to let users decide how they want a window to open and behave. In general this is bad practice and poor usability and ultimately confuses users. Jakob Nielsen comes to the rescue with “Opening New Browser Windows”:

Opening up new browser windows is like a vacuum cleaner sales person who starts a visit by emptying an ash tray on the customer’s carpet. Don’t pollute my screen with any more windows, thanks (particularly since current operating systems have miserable window management). If I want a new window, I will open it myself!

Designers open new browser windows on the theory that it keeps users on their site. But even disregarding the user-hostile message implied in taking over the user’s machine, the strategy is self-defeating since it disables the Back button which is the normal way users return to previous sites. Users often don’t notice that a new window has opened, especially if they are using a small monitor where the windows are maximized to fill up the screen. So a user who tries to return to the origin will be confused by a grayed out Back button.

(See also special guidelines for opening PDF files in new windows.)

Jakob said that in 1999! He continues to have to reassert himself 25 years later:

Opening new browser windows is highly confusing for most users. Although many users can cope with extra windows that they’ve opened themselves, few understand why the Back button suddenly stops working in a new window that the computer initiated. Opening new windows was #2 on my list of “Alertbox: The Top Ten Web Design Mistakes of 1999” top-10 Web design mistakes of 1999; that this design approach continues to hurt users exemplifies both the longevity of usability guidelines and the limited improvement in user skills.

Thanks Jakob, I feel much more vindicated in my advice now!

9 thoughts on “I Love Research That Re-enforces My Intuition

    Perhaps tabbing in IE7 will alter the perception that 4 windows is somehow better than 1. Also, for web standards folk, using onclick=’window.open(this.href); return false’ validates as XHTML.

    What about if you warn the user with a \’New Window\’ icon or text next to the link? For example, if you are linking off-site to a different organization\’s conference information or registration page?

    Dave C., according to this, the usability issue was in the absence of a history when accessing the back button. The warning still wouldn’t protect users from that extra time/confusion moving their mouse to the back button realizing nothing is in the history.

    Wait. What? I can’t stand it when I click on a link (say in a blog post) and it opens in the same window (thereby obliterating what I was just in the middle of reading). You’re saying you prefer that?

    Is there anything since 1999 that continues to support this? Web users of 2008 are nearly a decade out from those Jakob refers to in your quote. I\’m with Maddie here — maybe once upon a time it was confusing, but then, did Facebook exist in 1999? YouTube? del.icio.us? Users who were 10 years old then are in college now. Given the fact that you\’re getting requests for the target_blank tells me it\’s probably time to revisit this practice.

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