Pop-up Windows Still Suck

POP-UPIn 2004, Jakob Nielsen — the foremost expert on Web usability — wrote:

“Users not only dislike pop-ups, they transfer their dislike to the advertisers behind the ad and to the website that exposed them to it. In a survey of 18,808 users, more than 50% reported that a pop-up ad affected their opinion of the advertiser very negatively and nearly 40% reported that it affected their opinion of the website very negatively.”

I thought this what a settled issue in Web design, but apparently I was mistaken. Virtually every commercial blog or news site I visit these days uses trigger coding to spawn pop-up e-mail subscription windows upon either scrolling or exiting a page. It’s more than maddening, because it interrupts and frustrates my ability to seamlessly navigate pages in mobile environments.

Like so many core usability principles, Nielsen’s sage advice and corresponding research have gone the way of the dial-up modem. Take for example, this post from Social Media Examiner advocating the use of WordPress pop-up plugins to grow e-mail subscriptions:

“Pop-up boxes that appear when readers are browsing a website can get you more email subscriptions when they are used correctly. But they can also annoy users, so they need to be handled with care and tweaked for your audience.

Riddle me this SM: How does one “tweak” a pop-up window to overcome the immediate anger engendered by their presence? What could a publisher possibly offer me in pop-up space (save the immediate transfer of $20 to my bank account for the offense) to get me to chill out and subscribe to their e-mail list?

Answer: Nothing. There is no “correct” use of any marketing or design tactic whose sole goal is to ambush the end user into subscribing to your e-mail list.

If you offer your audience solid, helpful content without interruption, someone like me is more likely to pay attention to a prominent call to action to subscribe to your e-mail list at the close of your post or in a sidebar. Consider it a reward for the time you invested in sharing your expertise and respecting my time in your space.

However, a publisher who forces me to contend with a pop-up window, merely because I clicked on the back button or scrolled down the page, is neither respectful of my time or my experience on their site. You appear desperate and solely focused on building your list at all costs. That reflects poorly on your content, your business ethics and leaves me wondering what else you might do in the future to dupe me into something. So, the last thing I’m going to do is give you my e-mail address.

The more the things change the more they stay the same. Pop-up windows were a bad advertising tactic in 2004 and, while they’re fancier and easier to implement, nothing has changed 12 years later.

They still suck.

Pat McKenna is a digital strategist, social media manager/instructor, web designer and founder of MojoWeb Productions, LLC. in Milwaukee, WI. He can be reached via e-mail or by calling (414) 732-3397. Keep up to date on Pat's latest scribblings by subscribing to StrategicMojo, the monthly e-newsletter no SMB can be without!