Up to No Good: Why Pop-Ups are Bad User Experience

Example of pop-ups used the wrong way. Used under Creative Commons.

Pop-ups have a bad reputation on the web, and they should. Using the term conjures images of the alerts and modals that delivered malicious payloads on click and ended up giving JavaScript a bad reputation in years past. I’m not saying that there’s no legitimate use for alerts and confirmations as pop-ups, just that they’re sort of like a semi-colon in good writing…best when used sparingly. When I consider legitimate uses for alerts and confirmations, I think of functionality: making sure that you absolutely know that you’re about to lose changes if you leave the page, or that you’re totally certain that you want to complete that purchase. Modals to display information can sometimes be a good thing when you need to save space (though not the easiest thing to get right on mobile). Pop-ups requiring action to move forward, though..those are just wrong.

Aggressive Marketing is Bad

Okay, so marketing is important. After all, the best e-commerce experience on the web is useless if no customers are coming to appreciate it, and the vast wealth of information flying about on the Internet necessitates the ability to attract your customers or target audience to your content. That’s just a fact. I make no claim to be a marketer, I’m a designer and developer. Every designer and developer can tell you horror stories of when an elegant design or a poetic unit of code was chopped up and turned into something ugly because it had to answer to the idea that drawing additional users was more important than aesthetics or a clean user experience. When users come to your site, they want to see something that looks nice and that is intuitive to use. Moreover, you want them to experience that, as well, because you want them to return. If you’re an online storefront, then you want the shopping and checkout experience to be simple, with as few barriers between browsing and confirming the purchase as possible. There are always other options for the customer or site user, and they will move on to someone else’s site if they feel pressured or manipulated.

The Physical Shopping Pop-Ups Equivalent

Here’s an analogy. Like most Americans, I end up at a grocery store at least twice weekly. Every time you walk into a grocery store, you’re being manipulated a bit, especially if you’re going in with kids. Notice the candy and flashy toys placed too low for us, but at eye level to the children. The child wants what they see, they ask, the parent says “no,” there’s a crying fit, and the parent eventually gives in because they don’t want to have a public scene. Win for the merchant because they sell more stuff, but in an underhanded way. The customer is left with a bad impression, which means repeat business could be lost.

Eye Level on the Web

How does this relate to the web? I see an inordinate amount of sites that fire modal windows or pop-ups containing a call to action, and requiring interaction on the user’s part to dismiss, for purposes that appear focused completely on continued marketing efforts. Sometimes this is as harmless as the mildly annoying “would you like to receive updates” sort of window that follows you around the screen. Other times, it opens a newsletter subscription form after a certain amount of time on the site, blocking what you were reading and demanding interaction. A particularly nasty one that I’ve noticed lately is the “wait, don’t go” window that appears when you move your mouse back toward the address bar. Spiffy coding, but really? I now feel that you’re a desperate site owner, not a respectable business.

The absolute worst is the modal window that greets the user on page load, forcing a subscription to a newsletter blast in order to view any of the site’s content. This is one that I’ve seen on a real estate listing site, and I have to wonder just how successful it is.

Because User Experience is Important

My point is that user experience is of paramount importance to your site or application, and isn’t always measurable data. All too often I see poor UX decisions made from a desire to increase conversions result in an experience that makes the user feel manipulated or chased after. I think that there’s wisdom in ignoring statistics at times in favor of what we know about people on a more intuitive level. When I’m confronted with a CTA that requires information from me before viewing site content, I navigate away. By experience, I can tell you that I’m not alone, and I’d be interested to see some A/B testing results on this. When even a relatively small percentage of your users feel this way, their navigating away is recorded as a bounce by Google. A high enough bounce rate can harm search rankings for your site.

There’s a difference between placing the most important information prominently on your site, and forcing a user to give up their contact information before viewing your content. This is a difference between good information architecture and user experience, and overly aggressive marketing. Being intentional about favoring the former is the difference between happy users and the resulting search rankings, and achieving the opposite of what your pop-ups were supposed to accomplish.

Photo Attribution: Brent Payne under Creative Commons

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