Usability Report: ‘Can you make this link open in a new window?’

Often clients ask us to force certain links to open in new windows. This may seem somewhat intuitive, especially for external links which might take users away from their site. But wait–let’s give our  users a little more credit!

Usability studies have proven that the technique of forcing new windows or tabs to open on certain links is a frustrating and confusing experience for users. While there is near universal understanding of the ‘Back’ button (note the 95% click rate on the back button) and browser controls, many users do not understand how to switch windows (switching tasks) or have developed a system of window/tab management that they don’t want foisted upon them by a web developer that thinks they know better.

Here are some of the most compelling arguments:

 The Back button is the lifeline of the Web user and the second-most used navigation feature (after following hypertext links). Users happily know that they can try anything on the Web and always be saved by a click or two on Back to return them to familiar territory.[1]

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.[2]

Web-savvy users won’t find all popups offensive, but extra browser windows are often undesirable and never necessary. Window management is a task that should be left to the user rather than the web designer or developer – everyone already know how to use the back button and experienced users are perfectly able to open new windows explicitly when desired, e.g. by shift-clicking on a link or using ctrl+n.[3]

In one study, a site provided links to related books on Amazon.com, which opened in a second browser window. Using Amazon wasn’t relevant to our test, so as soon as the page came up the users tried to back out. One pair of users, upon discovering the grayed-out “Back” button, looked at each other with something akin to horror. They were quite honestly stumped and had no idea how to proceed. After a couple minutes of discussion, they finally closed the second window. In another recent study, six out of 17 users had difficulty with multiple windows, and three of them required assistance to get back to the first window and continue the task.[4]

Which is all to say, don’t use target=”_blank” or target=”_new”!

Another, somewhat different usability report reveals that sometimes users need a little push. Respect the user’s abilities to negotiate their own links, but give them a little help when it comes to finding their way home. Here’s a surprising study that reveals that many users don’t realize they can click on the logo to go home (a standard practice we employ). The bottom line: include a ‘home’ link, and help them out a bit.

Sources:

Jakob Nielson, The Top 10 New Web Design Mistakes of 1999 (1999!)

Johann Peterson, The Folly of Target=_blank

Synder Consulting: 7 Tricks that Web Users Don’t Know

Firefox Main Window Heatmap

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