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New Views on New Windows
by Jonathan Hayward -- March 9, 2005

I know that many (not all) awards programs request that external links open in a new browser window, because the type of people who review websites like it better that way. I used to have my own website open all external links in a new window.

I say "used to", because the more I read about user-friendliness the more I learned about how it's confusing to novice visitors, and the more I learned about how it's handicap-inaccessible. Handicap-accessible browsers do not handle new windows well. If you open a window, a blind visitor may not even be able to go back to your site at all.


Jonathan Hayward

I'm very interested in usability (making things user-friendly). My website's most popular article with web award people is an article on web usability. Both of my master's degrees include advanced usability-related work. I know that web awards people consider user-friendliness important. And I've done a lot of research into making user-friendly webpages. One of the people who's influenced me most is Jakob Nielsen.

Jakob Nielsen, author of the invaluable alertbox column, has been called "the guru of web page usability [user-friendliness]" (New York Times), "the world's leading expert on web usability" (U.S. News and World Report), "the world's leading expert on user-friendly design" (Stuttgarter Zeitung, Germany), and someone who "knows more about what makes Web sites work than anyone else on the planet." (Chicago Tribune). He knows a lot about user-friendliness and handicap accessibility.

I'd like to quote what he says about opening links in new windows. Keep in mind that he isn't even mentioning how opening a link in a new window messes up blind browsers so badly that the blind visitor is left with no obvious way to return to your site. To quote his list of the very top ten mistakes in web design, he says:

The ten most egregious offenses against users. Web design disasters and HTML horrors are legion, though many usability atrocities are less common than they used to be.

Since my first attempt in 1996, I have compiled many top-10 lists of the biggest mistakes in Web design. See links to all these lists at the bottom of this article. This article presents the highlights: the very worst mistakes of Web design. (Updated 2004.)

[After talking about how users hate anything that reminds them of popup advertising windows, and discussing the "strike back at GeoCities" glee of people closing popup windows before they even load, number nine of the ten worst mistakes webmasters make is:]

9. Opening New Browser Windows

Opening up new browser windows is like a vacuum cleaner sales person who starts a visit by emptying an ash tray on the customer's carpet. Don't pollute my screen with any more windows, thanks (particularly since current operating systems have miserable window management).

Designers open new browser windows on the theory that it keeps users on their site. But even disregarding the user-hostile message implied in taking over the user's machine, the strategy is self-defeating since it disables the Back button which is the normal way users return to previous sites. Users often don't notice that a new window has opened, especially if they are using a small monitor where the windows are maximized to fill up the screen. So a user who tries to return to the origin will be confused by a grayed out Back button.

Links that don't behave as expected undermine users' understanding of their own system. A link should be a simple hypertext reference that replaces the current page with new content. Users hate unwarranted pop-up windows. When they want the destination to appear in a new page, they can use their browser's "open in new window" command -- assuming, of course, that the link is not a piece of code that interferes with the browser's standard behavior.

So I used my tools to change hundreds of external links on my site to open in a new window. Yes, hundreds. Every single one, as meticulously as alt tags. It was part of a major effort to overhaul my website and make it a gem of the web.

This time through, I notice that a lot of awards programs want people to open external links in a new window, which is understandable: if everybody were a web reviewer, that would be the right thing to do. But given some of my experience working with people who are very bright but not technical, or working with refugees from the third world, I no longer believe this is correct. And I want awards, but not enough to make my website harder to use. I want awards, but not enough to make my site worse. I want awards, but not enough to make my website inaccessible to handicapped visitors. What is a cool feature to visitors with enough experience to have an awards program is needlessly frustrating and confusing to people I want to include. And isn't including people one of the things awards programs are meant to recognize?

There is good reason to remove this one criterion while keeping all the others. There are good reasons to keep most of the awards criteria. There are also good reasons to change this one. But even without removing the rule completely, there is good reason to make carefully-thought-out exceptions. And many awards programs criteria do this because they know it's a good idea. In awards criteria, a lot of people say that they want no nudity, but there's an exception for artistic depiction of the human body. There should be no violence, but there's an exception for boxing. They know that rules are important, but they aren't important enough to get in the way of recognizing good sites.

Probably the best thing to do would be to remove the rule saying "external links open a new window", because research shows that this is saying, "If you win my award, you need to make your site inaccessible to blind people and inexperienced visitors." But the next best thing would be to say "new window, but with an exception for people who are making a principled effort to be accessible."

It would be a way to include websites that are working extra hard to include all of their visitors. And if you're disqualifying sites because they try to be user-friendly and accessible, you could be disqualifying some good sites. Take a look at my site, and ask whether you'd disqualify it because I've done a lot of research and I happen to disagree with this one particular rule. Is this a site you'd want to penalize just because of this rule?

Is this rule more important than handicap accessibility? Is this rule more important than user-friendliness?

Copyright © 2005
All Rights Reserved
Jonathan Hayward

About the Author
Jonathan Hayward (Jonathan's Corner) is interested in user-friendliness, literature, and creating excellent webpages. He holds master's degrees from both UIUC and Cambridge, both of which relate to making webpages user-friendly.

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