Let's Talk About Pop-Ups

jack in the boxI've begun to receive regular requests from my clients for "pop-ups," alternately called "pop up windows" or "you know, a little box that comes up with some extra information?"

I don't like them. I don't like them at all.

That said, as the consultant and designer that my clients have hired to make their web site visions into realities, it's my job to do what they want -- in part. Another part of my job is to steer them away from the technologies that might do them a disservice. I tell them not to host with their brothers-in-law who just opened a hosting company in their basement; I suggest they avoid flashing yellow "NEW!" buttons in front of each new blog post; and I tell them, gently, that there are other ways of making a piece of content "pop" without making it "pop UP." 

Here are some of the reasons why I recommend against using pop-up windows.

 #1. Users hate them.

popup window google search results

A google search for "pop up windows" has pages and pages of results that help users learn how to get rid of them. Pop-up windows on web sites and desktops, pop-up windows that sell things and pop-up windows that share important system upgrade information -- if it is revealed to a user in a small window in front of what they're currently viewing on their screen, you'll find someone who wants to get rid of it and a web tutorial to help them make that happen.

Our goal as the purveyors of information is to make that information as accessible and palatable and interesting as possible. Our goal is to make our users read it. If user instinct is to look for the upper-right (x) to close that pop-up window, you're shooting yourself in the foot by putting important information there.

But, you say, there's research that shows that people subscribe to more newsletters if you have the subscription form in a pop-up window. That's true -- if you don't offer any other way to close the pop-up window other than completing the subscription form. There's some compelling data out there that claims that people fill in the subscription box just to make it go away -- and then they do not go on to become your best customers. Being strong-armed isn't the most attractive strategy out there.

#2. They make a mess of your mobile site.

Tell the truth: how often have you opened an article in the web browser on your phone, only to be forced to point the tip of a finger at the tiny corner of a translucent ad covering much of the content? When that happens, how often have you accidentally tapped on the ad itself, pulling you off the article you were reading?

Did that make you more or less likely to buy the item featured in the ad?

In the example below, visiting the website of a major newspaper, I wasn't even able to view the home page without getting blasted with a pop-up window trying to sell me the digital version of the newspaper. Some of the pop-up window is opaque. Some of it is translucent. The (x) is in the upper left. Where to click? Do I even still want to read anything on this site? 


#3. They're not your only option.

Your goal is to get the attention of your users without disrupting their enjoyment of the other items on your site. You want to alert them without annoying them. There are several other ways you can do this.

  1. Use a Smart or Sticky Bar. 

    There are several ways to utilize what is sometimes called a Smart Bar or a Sticky Bar. Loosely defined, it's a thin bar of text at the top of your browser window that sticks to the top of the screen as your user scrolls. Instead of disappearing when a user scrolls down the page, it remains at the top. You can use this space to offer your users a chance to click at any time for your special deal, conference registration, or newsletter signup. It doesn't cover up any of your page content, but it does remain on screen at all times. You can find an example of this here: https://sumome.com/app/smart-bar

  2. Use an eye-catching image within your page of content.

    You don't have to cover the content your user is reading to get their attention. You can choose, instead, to put a bright, exciting-looking image right there in the middle of your content. As long as the user can notice and then choose to come back to it, you've already improved on a pop-up window that the user closes and can never find again. There's a great example of this -- not coincidentally -- in an article on the "Are Email Subscription Pop-ups Worth the Risk?," by Maura D. Andrea. The bright text box below follows her informative article.

    call to action example
  3. Float some content on the side.

    Not unlike item above, this strategy floats a small block to the right of your main content. With slightly more space, this option allows you to include more styling and even some small images so that you can get more visually creative. When the user scrolls, the little box on the side "sticks" to the screen, never leaving your user's peripheral vision even if they're planning to finish reading your article/blog post first. There are several ways to do this, technically speaking. If your site is built in WordPress, the Theia Sticky Sidebar is a nice option.


If a pop-up ad opens on your site the minute you user arrives, then the first thing you're doing to that user is interrupting her. It's another way of saying, not-so-subtly, that whatever they came to your site to read is less important than the sales pitch you've held up in front of them. This isn't to say that your call-to-action, holiday sale, or newsletter sign-up isn't also important; it's just that your user is in the middle of something that you've decided to impede. 


You don't want to interrupt an interested user, do you? 

Of course not. Find another way to get their attention, one that allows them to locate your exciting statement when they've finished the task they came to your site to complete. The alternatives exist and, what's more, they're becoming more and more popular, training your users before they even get to your site that they can look around each page and find the latest and greatest, all without having to click on a tiny little (x).


Looking for a positive way to get the attention of your potential customers or donors? Let us know! Send us a message via emailFacebook or Twitter. We'd love to help you build a web site that achieves your goals with integrity!

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