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Why A New Window Is Akin To A Barrier To (Re) Entry

Why A New Window Is Akin To A Barrier To (Re) Entry

We’re thinking about redesigning our website at the moment and one of the development team sent a straw poll round the office asking what people thought about links opening in new windows. To say that it unleashed a bit of a storm would probably be putting it mildly.

Whilst many people (myself included) felt that links should generally open in the same window, there were a fair amount of people saying that, especially in the case of links to external sites, they should open in a new browser window.

[The] Reason why is “user retention”. In blog posts there are normally quite a few external links which if clicked and opened in the same window would mean the reader will get distracted and maybe never comes back to our site.

Now I greatly respect the views of the person who wrote this (I ought to, he knows more about web design than I ever will) but I have to disagree and wanted to explain why. I also thought that a blog post might be a better way of exploring different opinions than an internal round-robin, as I’d be very interested in the views of our readers as well.

The back button is, undoubtedly, one of the most used and best understood forms of navigation on the web. The search engines realise this which is why they track and, to varying degrees, utilise this data when determining how useful a site is (whether it’s been reached from the organic listings or a paid ad.) It’s what people are used to, as evidenced by the fact that huge sites, such as the BBC, which in many ways shape user behaviour, are not afraid to link to external content in the same window.

The idea that opening external links in a new window will result in people returning to your site more than if you allow their journey to continue in the same window is, I think, based on a misconception; if your content is good enough, people will generally come back to it; if it’s not, you can throw open as many new windows as you want at them but they simply won’t return.

Of course this doesn’t even touch on the issues relating to accessibility and usability. Jakob Nielsen (who I have to say I don’t always agree with) argues:

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.

The RNIB also tends to agree with Nielsen:

only launch a new browser window from a link if it is really necessary. For instance, if the link destination will take users out of a secure website, then it may perfectly valid to open a new window so that users won’t be put to the trouble of logging in again.

Warn users about any links that would open new windows

Of course the RNIB has been found to be lacking in the accessibility department itself, but still, do as I say, not as I do.

At the end of the day of course, there is no right or wrong answer; a site should always be designed with the user in mind, and if that typical user would expect links to open in a new window, then that’s the way to go. But if you’re doing it to hold on to traffic, you may find you end up losing more in the end.

Note: the results of the office poll (which was far from scientific) was:

  1. Opening links in the same window: 73%
  2. Opening links in an external window: 27%

Please feel free to drop your own opinion on this amazingly heated debate in the comments below.

Header image: ercwttmn on Flickr

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