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!