Don't let your web site fall out of the window: opening new browser windows

On this page: o you ever get lost in a welter of browser windows? If so, read this article where Lois discusses the pros and cons of using new windows on a web site. Sometimes, there may be good reasons to start another browser window, but not as often as is generally thought.

New site = new window?

Many designers open all links to other sites in a separate window to encourage visitors to return to their own site later. I don't have any statistics on this, but from my own experience and observing other people using the web, I'm not sure if this is a valid reason. If visitors find something interesting on the other page, they are just as likely to go off on another trail in the new window.

In the mean time, the first window has been buried under one or more others, and may lie there forgotten. Not all users are willing or able to use window-switching facilities (e.g. the Windows task bar or Alt/Tab keys; the Mac application menu or Cmd/Tab keys) to retrieve the first site. In fact, since the Back button is one of the most-used web navigation devices after links, they are quite likely to use it, and find that they can never get back to the first site in the current window. See this link to external site Jakob Neilsen Alertbox if you don't believe me.

Does window size or the browser make a difference?

The default action for Internet Explorer (the most common browser in use at the time of writing) seems to be to create a new window about the same size as the current one. So in this case, part of the first window is often visible, at least until the user alters the stacking order of the windows. But IE remembers the size and position of the new window, so if the user moves or resizes, then closes it, this may not always be so. You'll have to play with this to see what I mean. (Hint: right-click on any link and choose "open in new window" from the menu.)

Opera, Firefox and Internet Explorer 7 have (or at least can be set to use) an MDI, so their users are perhaps used to handling multiple windows, and can probably be trusted to work it out for themselves. (Aside: newer versions of Microsoft Word use separate windows for each open document, so perhaps this will forcibly educate users in different styles of window management?)

Scenarios you have known and loved:


  1. Open a link that spawns a new window, decide it isn't what I want.
  2. Go back to the first window, now in front, and click another link.
  3. Think, "why doesn't that darn link work?" and punt the mouse again several times with increasing force. Answer to question: because the window where it opened is now hidden in the background.
  4. Give up on first site in disgust.

  1. Open a link that spawns a new window, decide it isn't what I want.
  2. Click the back button or use Alt / <- and think "why doesn't back work?". Answer to question: because the window it opened in is new and has no history.
  3. Never go back to first site on principle (in my case), or, for novice users, be unable to do so because they haven't spotted the other browser instance lurking in the background.

... and finally, there's the one where each link on a page has a different target:

End up with about 10 browsers open and get hopelessly lost. Half of them have a stupid title, so I can't see from the taskbar what they are. Can I be bothered to open each one to see if I can find the buried treasure? No.

My opinion ...

... is that there are very few cases in which a new window for a different site adds any value. Sometimes, for a specific web application, you may want two independent windows running at the same time (when frames are not an option for some reason). But you need either to have users who know what they are doing, or a captive (intranet) audience with predictable browsers and settings, so you can script down to the last pixel!

And one I share with many other web users: this is my desktop, and I want to stay in control of it. If I want a different window to compare or keep track of sites, I'll open it myself, thank you very much.

Pop-ups

Designers sometimes use pop-up windows (often without any controls and to a specific size and position) to show content related to the current page, or for a special visual effect.

(Also, inexcusably in my opinion, to annoy the visitor with an unsolicited ad.)

Such windows are created using JavaScript, and may not work in the way intended (or at all) for the minority of people whose browsers do not support it (usually because this functionality is turned off). For users running the browser full-screen, they easily get lost - there is no "keep on top" option. Users of tabbed browsers will perhaps find the pop-up opening in a tab behind - there are many options to control how this works. And anyone runing a pop-up blocker won't see them at all by default.

I used to have a demonstration on this page to show how easy it is to lose focus, but the situation is now so complicated that I have ditched it!

I think that pop-ups have legitimate uses when you have an audience that will read the on-screen instructions you give it (of course, you do give instructions for anything that isn't a straight link, don't you?) Add a close button or link so the window/tab can be thrown away easily, and avoid the temptation to use more than one or two.

Pros and cons

The table below summarises the main points for and against the use of multiple windows. I've tried to be even-handed, but my own view is that there are far more reasons to use the one window most of the time.

Same window Different windows
User remains in control of his/her desktop, and window history/Back button. User can arrange/flip between several sites using standard OS controls if he/she knows how.
User may forget to go back to your site, or use the Back button if it is worth revisiting. User may lose the window where your site was displayed, and give up if Back stops working.
Cannot show related information without using frames, which have their own problems (see my article on frames). Pop-ups allow some related information to be visible at the same time.
Action of links is always apparent. New pages opened by a link may be obscured.

How to get over the "how do I manage with just one window" syndrome

My suggested compromise is the one I use on this site: to indicate all links that go to a new site so users can choose to leave, open a new window themselves, or not. I can always advise users to open a new window in the link text if I feel it is essential (though I haven't needed to yet). Of course, if the use of a second window for a new site becomes the overwhelmingly-accepted standard, I may have to revise my advice.