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Here we go again. Popups.


A recurring sin: popups.

Whatever you call it — popup, overlay, modal, or popover — people just hate it. Five things you should avoid when using popups.

SAM72/SHUTTERSTOCK

When talking about popups, most people tell me that they are aiming to generate leads and that they use pop-ups to grab users attention and possibly convince them to leave information about their interests, their company, or their contact details.

In terms of popup anatomy, modal overlays disable all background content, non-modal overlays preserve users’ ability to interact with background content, and light-boxes dim the background content.

Popups are good at grabbing attention

There is no doubt that popups succeed in grabbing people attention, and they do this since they were first invented:

For the first time, an advertisement on the Internet could get right in your face, like a commercial on TV. If a banner ad just sat there in the corner of the screen, a pop-up would make you stop what you were doing.

Who Made That Pop-Up Ad?” — The New York Times

Popups were really good at increasing sales…

Since the very first pop-up coded in 1995, pop-ups have been a very successful approach also to increase sales. They revolutionized the web.

Many tools came out to help gathering information on websites user behaviors so to push popup ads with tailored offerings and “convert” users. The first one was Gator: an adware tool (defined by some critics as “spyware”) that could log websites visits and push popup ads related to what the user had already visited. Somewhat, things got out of control, companies overused popups, and users became more and more annoyed by this approach. Lawsuits started and regulations were put in place, pop-up blocking became a standard feature for browsers.

The adware business obviously didn’t stop there. Newer and smarter ways of tailoring ads sprang and companies in the business prospered. Google and the giants of Silicon Valley refined the model to make it more effective. As a result, when surfing the web, we are not as overwhelmed as in the early 2000s, while companies still adopt behavioral advertising to convert us. We accept tailored advertisement — and sometime, it seems, we are even pleased with it.

… but people hate popups now

Perhaps, it’s because of their history that popups became the most hated advertising technique:

At the end of the day, the business model that got us funded was advertising. The model that got us acquired was analyzing users’ personal homepages so we could better target ads to them. Along the way, we ended up creating one of the most hated tools in the advertiser’s toolkit: the pop-up ad.

Zuckerman — inventor of the popup and author of “The internet’s original sin

The annoyance brought by popups is so common that there is a name for when the users immediately close a popup: pop-up/modal purge. And so, anything that resembles a popup is also treated with the same acrimony:

From conducting decades of user research, we know that people dislike popups and modals. I was reminded of this fact during a recent usability study. While attempting to complete a task, a participant tossed his phone across the table after encountering multiple popups, consecutively. Frustrated, he abandoned his task and left the website with a very bad impression of the organization. Several other users shared a similar sentiment, albeit they did not throw their phones.

Anna Kaley, from NNG

Although popups and modals are great for grabbing people attention, all alone they might not be as good as convincing users to release information about themselves or their interests. So, what to do or not to do with them?

Let’s start from what not to do.

5 bad ways of using popups and modals

  1. Showing a popup before the main page content loads or right after the login: the user hasn’t had the time to know what the site could offer and she’s already asked to take a decision and leave some personal information (even if it’s “only” an email address or a question on her preferences). It’s quite an aggressive way to start a conversation that aims to convince someone else to trust you. In the case of a user logging in, the user gets interrupted just before doing something in their account area. Not a great way to treat a returning customer, even when the website needs to deliver an an important communication.
  2. Interrupting access to content through modal overlays. Gated content could be great for converting. But it doesn’t come for free for the user. After all, it’s only fair to ask for a little something (an email address, for example) in return for a very good though leadership piece. It’s just a matter of setting the expectations right: don’t let the user believe that she has access to that piece of work to only find herself in front of a closed door.
  3. Showing multiple popups one after another: there is no value in delivering many messages right one after the other and force the user to interact with each one of them, as reported in the quote above.
  4. Displaying a modal overlay before the user moves to a new subdomain or external site. Think of this as when you meet with your favourite keynote speaker right after a conference. You have a nice half hour chat over a coffee and now your fav keynote speaker decides to leave. Would you pull her arm to convince her to stay? I don’t think so, so don’t do this to your users.
  5. Using modal overlays for GDPR and cookie notifications. Because GDPR and cookie notifications must be presented at the first use of a website, on a popup they will get the same treatment as if they were advertising: they will be dismissed. People have learnt over the years that popups and modals suddenly presented are annoying ads to dismiss.
A popup builder company blog post experience. Bad.

Bad use of popups = bad experience = bad for Google

Popups badly used not only provide bad user experience, they also increase the risk of low rankings in search-engine results: Google penalizes sites that make content less accessible to users, especially on mobile.

But there is hope.

The right ways to use popups? Stay tuned!


Here we go again. Popups. was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.