New Browser Windows = Very, Very Bad. Really.

As a professional web developer, it’s shocking to me how many clients (usually but not always marketing droids) still insist that any and all links pointing off-site — or even to other sections of a large site — must open in a new window. More shocking is how many of them actually think it’s a great idea that benefits both them and the user. Nearly 13 years after the advent of HTML frames made opening new windows from a link all too easy, and after fully a decade of ongoing pleas and indoctrination from usability and accessibility gurus, I can’t believe how frequently I have to re-fight this battle and educate misguided clients on the folly of this “strategy.”

For typical users, gratuitous new windows are only slightly less annoying than sites and pages that forcibly resize your browser window. If I wanted a new damn window, I’d have used “open in new tab” or “open in a new window” my own damn self! I know how to use a back button, and I know how to use bookmarks. Forcing new windows on your visitors is amateur hour. It’s arrogant, it’s insulting, and it’s very 1997.

It’s much worse for users relying on assistive technologies, including (but not limited to) screen readers, for whom new windows and pop-ups can severely hamper the ability to navigate your oh-so-self-important site.

Now, what do you do when you encounter a painful stimulus? You avoid it, of course, and probably quietly curse whoever caused your pointless pain. At that moment, your site becomes associated with annoyance. Is that really what you want? I’m guessing not.

In my considered judgment, new windows (or pop-ups if you absolutely must) are only justified — even advisable — when linking to digital media: PDFs, MS Word or RTF files, video, audio, and the like. Other than that, forget it. Don’t insult — or cripple — your users.

Following below, for future reference, are a number of the hundreds of specifications, studies, and articles which hammer home the point.

Do not open new windows – a dire user experience

Rebuts the main reasons people think they need to open new windows, and explains why it is such a terrible idea. (With supporting links from accessibility and usability experts…as early as 1999.)

“Opening new windows creates frustration, anger and leads to users leaving your site and ultimately a loss of business.”

“…Breaking news: users know how to use the back button. …[U]sers are not stupid.”

“There are solid business and technical reasons for not opening new windows. There is little or nothing in the way of an argument in favor of them.”

W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0

Checkpoint 10.1: “Until user agents allow users to turn off spawned windows, do not cause pop-ups or other windows to appear and do not change the current window without informing the user.”

WCAG 2.0 – Success Criterion 3.2.5: Change on Request: Changes of context are initiated only by user request or [if] a mechanism is available to turn off such changes. (Level AAA)

WCAG 2.0 – F22: Failure of Success Criterion 3.2.5 due to opening windows that are not requested by the user

“Beware of opening links in a new window”

“Dive Into Accessibility: 30 days to a more accessible web site. Day 16: Not opening new windows.”

“Avoid forcing to open in a new window”

“Radical changes of focus in a GUI environment are extremely disorienting to blind users who are navigating by screen reader, and thus can be considered discrimination against the visually impaired.”

“Links to New Windows, Pop-ups, Other Frames, or External Web Sites”

One thought on “New Browser Windows = Very, Very Bad. Really.

  1. Thanks for quoting my article Spencer! I think whilst this is a technical matter it is critical to write about it **in plain English** because, as you quite rightly point out, most of our clients are non-technical and don’t understand just why it should be avoided like the plague.

    Thankfully everyone I’ve talked to on the subject has dropped this, either a requirement for a new site or a practice on an existing one. We will stamp it out!!