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Usability best practise – Should links open in new windows?

No, they shouldn’t. At first glance the decision to open links in new windows or not depends on the given site and the preferences of its visitors. Visitors of the sites with heavy linking are more willing to have links opened in new windows than open dozens of links in new windows manually. Visitors of less-heavy-linkage-sites are more likely to open some specific link in new window to remain on the site and continue to browse through it afterwards. However, this is not true. Users also don’t like to deal with dozens of opened tabs and some visitors tend to quickly become angry with the disabled back-button. Furthermore, some visitors may not even realize that a new window was opened and hit the back-button mercilessly — without any result. That’s not user-friendly and that’s not a good user experience we, web designers, strive for.

Place users in control

From the usability point of view the decision to enforce opening links in new windows violates one of the fundamental principles of the user interface design: users should always be in control of the interface they are interacting with. Leading user interface and usability researchers such as claim that a user-friendly and effective user interface places users in control of the application they are using. Users need to be able to rely on consistency of the user interface and know that they won’t be distracted or disrupted during the interaction. Users must know, understand and anticipate what is going on and what will happen once user interface elements are used. Any deviations from this convention result in a more design-oriented and less user-oriented design. As Shneiderman claims, experienced users strongly desire the sense that they are in charge of the system and that the system responds to their actions. As designers, it is our duty to design the system to make users the initiators of actions rather than the responders. Designers are tempted to enforce users to actually use the interface or browse through the site they have created. Although the rationale behind stems from some clear commercial objectives and therefore often preferred by project managers, it is the designer’s duty to make clear to managers that users do not care. In fact, developers often tend to forget a simple, almost elementary fact: if users want to close the application or leave a site, they will — doesn’t matter which obstacles are placed on their path to the exit-button. The more obstacles there are the more negative the user experience will be. As designers, it is our decision to provide users with a clear, unambiguous choice, but we have no right to decide for users which choice they make.

Why enforcing opening links in new windows is wrong

Since users need to be placed in control of the interface they are interacting with, it is wrong to make decisions for them as designer’s decisions don’t necessary match users’ decisions. The main problem with enforcing links to open in new windows is that this decision overrules user’s decision to control the view in their browser. Since large web-sites (Google, Amazon, AOL, Yahoo & Co.) open links in the same window (unless it is explicitly stated that links are opened in new windows), users tend to assume that the link on an unknown page will be opened in the same window. So users expect the link to be opened in the same window. Let us now consider the following two situations where a user doesn’t know upfront if the site opens links in new windows or in the same window:
  1. user wants to open link in a new window, but the site opens links in the same window,
  2. user wants to open link in the same window, but the site opens links in new windows.
In the first situation users can choose to open a link in the new window using context-menu or shortcuts described in the next sections of this article. In this situation users are the initiators of actions as they decide how the linked page should be displayed. Here site’s behavior meets user’s expectations resulting in a good user experience. In the second situation users would simply click on the link and suddenly find out that the link is opened in a new window. In this situation users are the responders of actions as they need to react on the way how the linked page is displayed — for instance close the windows which was opened automatically. Furthermore, here site’s behavior doesn’t meet user’s expectations resulting in a bad user experience. Users find it annoying when the site does something without asking them to do so. If users want to open new windows let them do so and don’t indulge their intelligence by making decision for them otherwise. Don’t force a new window upon users unless there’s a very good reason to do so. Read the full article here: http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/07/01/should-links-open-in-new-windows/

One Response to Usability best practise – Should links open in new windows?

  1. Very well written post, this issue is properly discussed here but the things actually depends on the users, what they actually want, anyways thanks for this informative post…

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