Research on opening links in new windows?

27 Sep 2008 - 4:34pm
5 years ago
15 replies
1416 reads
Robert Hoekman, Jr.
2005

I'm looking for actual, legitimate research on the usability of opening
links in new windows. I've found several articles based entirely on
assumptions ("users are likely to...", "some users may..."), but nothing
from an actual usability study performed in the past couple of years since
tabbed browsing has become prevalent in the major browsers.
I know the answer is "it depends", because there are certainly going to be
exceptions to whatever the general best practice may be, but any actual data
from usability research would be better than the articles I've found.

Any sources?

Thanks very much!

-r-

Comments

27 Sep 2008 - 4:49pm
Robert Hoekman, Jr.
2005

>
> I know the answer is "it depends", because there are certainly going to be
> exceptions to whatever the general best practice may be, but any actual data
> from usability research would be better than the articles I've found.
>

Btw, if the general rule is to open links in the same window, then might
blogs be one of the exceptions? Instinctively, it seems wrong to have an
external link within a blog post open in the same window. You're essentially
hijacking your own content—the stuff you want the person to read—with
related or supporting content on another site. Yes, that's what the Back
button is for, I know, but it seems more logical to collect open windows of
the external links rather than go back-and-forth.

Honestly, it would be a relief to be wrong about this. It would save me a
whole lot of hassle adding _blank to HREFs, but I'm concerned about whether
or not most web users know at least one way to open a link in a new window
or tab manually, and if only some users know these shortcuts, it feels like
bouncing them back-and-forth is less effective than new windows.

Again, happy to be wrong, so please, argue with me.

-r-

27 Sep 2008 - 7:18pm
jabbett
2008

If it's any consolation, the technology itself offers some guidance--

* Strict XHTML does not support the "target" attribute in an anchor tag
* W3C accessibility guidelines instruct not to launch a new window
"without informing the user"
http://www.w3.org/TR/WAI-WEBCONTENT-TECHS/#tech-avoid-pop-ups

I'm generally hesitant to let the lowest common denominator (i.e.
text-based browsers) dictate how I implement a web site, but hewing to
the standard might be wise. Looking forward to some hard evidence ;)

-Jonathan

On Sat, Sep 27, 2008 at 5:49 PM, Robert Hoekman Jr <robert at rhjr.net> wrote:
>>
>> I know the answer is "it depends", because there are certainly going to be
>> exceptions to whatever the general best practice may be, but any actual data
>> from usability research would be better than the articles I've found.
>>
>
> Btw, if the general rule is to open links in the same window, then might
> blogs be one of the exceptions? Instinctively, it seems wrong to have an
> external link within a blog post open in the same window. You're essentially
> hijacking your own content—the stuff you want the person to read—with
> related or supporting content on another site. Yes, that's what the Back
> button is for, I know, but it seems more logical to collect open windows of
> the external links rather than go back-and-forth.
>
> Honestly, it would be a relief to be wrong about this. It would save me a
> whole lot of hassle adding _blank to HREFs, but I'm concerned about whether
> or not most web users know at least one way to open a link in a new window
> or tab manually, and if only some users know these shortcuts, it feels like
> bouncing them back-and-forth is less effective than new windows.
>
> Again, happy to be wrong, so please, argue with me.
>
> -r-
> ________________________________________________________________
> Welcome to the Interaction Design Association (IxDA)!
> To post to this list ....... discuss at ixda.org
> Unsubscribe ................ http://www.ixda.org/unsubscribe
> List Guidelines ............ http://www.ixda.org/guidelines
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>

28 Sep 2008 - 2:50am
netwiz
2010

On Sat, 27 Sep 2008 14:34:06 -0700, Robert wrote:

>I'm looking for actual, legitimate research on the usability of opening
>links in new windows. I've found several articles based entirely on
>assumptions ("users are likely to...", "some users may..."), but nothing
>from an actual usability study performed in the past couple of years since
>tabbed browsing has become prevalent in the major browsers.
>I know the answer is "it depends", because there are certainly going to be
>exceptions to whatever the general best practice may be, but any actual data
>from usability research would be better than the articles I've found.

Robert, I can talk from the perspective of research that we've done,
but I can't provide you with reports.

One type of new window that we know is OK is the informational popup
that is user-initiated. If there's some unavoidable jargon or other
content that needs explanation, we may explain it in a 'what's this?'
popup.

We do know from what people have told us that new windows opening
unexpectedly annoys many people and can be confusing.

The principle that we (usually) follow is that links to external sites
open in a new window, as this maintains the context of our site. This
turns out to be sufficiently good reason to overcome the
unexpectedness problem.

I don't think we've tested opening new windows on the same site, and
this is where we make assumptions in line with your reading, that it's
not (usually) a good idea. It doesn't mean it's never a good idea
though.

* Nick Gassman - Usability and Standards Manager - http://ba.com *

28 Sep 2008 - 10:10am
Cwodtke
2004

Finally decided to stop trying to argue with only 140 characters? ;)
http://twitter.com/rhjr/statuses/937492704

This is not published data. it's a sorry state of the business nature of the
internet that many many good studies are done inside of companies that could
be shared widely, aren't. You can decide for yourself if you trust this.

In many many usability studies done at both major internet company X, plus
smaller websites a distinct patterns was observed. If you open a new window
automatically for a user in a new window or tab, it is the nature of the
speed of the browser and the fact the new window opens right on top of the
initial window that the user doesn't perceive what has happened. All they
know is the back button has mysteriously stopped working. Considering it's
the only control they really know how to use, this is upsetting to them.

If you need to open a new window, you can use popup or lightbox technology
to create a window that is visibly different and provides sufficiant
feedback to the user so they know what is going on. Obviously these
technologies can be misunderstood by the browser as ads, and blocked
(lightbox less so). But they provide the correct feedback.

If someone out there designs browsers, could you please provide decent
feedback that a new window/tab is opened? It's obvious this debate is never
going away, and many people want to open new windows for their users.

Hope this helps. Trust me; the numbers are large and consistant accross
contexts.

a final thought. http://twitter.com/cwodtke/statuses/937587779

On Sun, Sep 28, 2008 at 12:50 AM, Nick Gassman <nick at netwiz.demon.co.uk>wrote:

> On Sat, 27 Sep 2008 14:34:06 -0700, Robert wrote:
>
> >I'm looking for actual, legitimate research on the usability of opening
> >links in new windows. I've found several articles based entirely on
> >assumptions ("users are likely to...", "some users may..."), but nothing
> >from an actual usability study performed in the past couple of years since
> >tabbed browsing has become prevalent in the major browsers.
> >I know the answer is "it depends", because there are certainly going to be
> >exceptions to whatever the general best practice may be, but any actual
> data
> >from usability research would be better than the articles I've found.
>
> Robert, I can talk from the perspective of research that we've done,
> but I can't provide you with reports.
>
> One type of new window that we know is OK is the informational popup
> that is user-initiated. If there's some unavoidable jargon or other
> content that needs explanation, we may explain it in a 'what's this?'
> popup.
>
> We do know from what people have told us that new windows opening
> unexpectedly annoys many people and can be confusing.
>
> The principle that we (usually) follow is that links to external sites
> open in a new window, as this maintains the context of our site. This
> turns out to be sufficiently good reason to overcome the
> unexpectedness problem.
>
> I don't think we've tested opening new windows on the same site, and
> this is where we make assumptions in line with your reading, that it's
> not (usually) a good idea. It doesn't mean it's never a good idea
> though.
>
> * Nick Gassman - Usability and Standards Manager - http://ba.com *
> ________________________________________________________________
> Welcome to the Interaction Design Association (IxDA)!
> To post to this list ....... discuss at ixda.org
> Unsubscribe ................ http://www.ixda.org/unsubscribe
> List Guidelines ............ http://www.ixda.org/guidelines
> List Help .................. http://www.ixda.org/help
>

28 Sep 2008 - 1:10pm
Jeff Howard
2004

Hi Robert,

Here's a thread from a few months ago discussing whether external
links should open in the same window.
http://www.ixda.org/discuss.php?post=31169

One study cited in that thread was this 2005 Nielsen alertbox:
http://www.useit.com/alertbox/open_new_windows.html

// jeff

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Posted from the new ixda.org
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28 Sep 2008 - 2:15pm
Robert Hoekman, Jr.
2005

>
> The principle that we (usually) follow is that links to external sites
> open in a new window, as this maintains the context of our site.

It's this exact decision that got me started down this road yesterday, so
this is particularly interesting. Did your research tell you this was OK? I
ask because this is exactly what most articles, including Nielsen's, say not
to do.

I do the same thing on my own site. If it's bad form, I'd be happy to stop,
and I definitely am starting to believe it's bad form, but it's so bizarre
to me that there is no documented evidence beyond what could simply be
opinion.

Christina may have the most legit research out there, but she can't release
it because it was proprietary research. It's really crazy. Makes you wonder
how many other longstanding, assumed best practices we're relying on.

-r-

28 Sep 2008 - 2:26pm
Robert Hoekman, Jr.
2005

>
> If you open a new window automatically for a user in a new window or tab,
> it is the nature of the
> speed of the browser and the fact the new window opens right on top of
> the initial window that the user doesn't perceive what has happened. All
> they know is the back button has mysteriously stopped working. Considering
> it's the only control they really know how to use, this is upsetting to
> them.
>

There has to be many exceptions to this guideline, though. Consider, for
example, the usability issue caused by leaving a multi-state web app
rendered via DHTML. Browsers don't cache the most recent page state—they
cache what was loaded in the first place—so leaving a page and hitting the
Back button can cause serious confusion and frustration.

Another exception that appears to make sense is an inline external link,
such as a link to another article in a blog post. Doesn't it make more sense
to enable keeping both sites open at once (via a new window) than to assume
the user will know a shortcut to open the new page in a new tab/window
manually?

I would so love to be wrong on this one, and I may just follow it as a
guideline regardless (because, again, it makes my life easier and everyone
seems to agree on it), but there are so many exceptions that, as a
guideline, it's shaky at best. And without any real data, we're relying on
thin information.

-r-

28 Sep 2008 - 7:06pm
Cwodtke
2004

Well, why follow the guideline when it's not appropriate? I hope that my
explanation lets you quickly spot when you shouldn't follow this guideline.

We need an independantly wealthy researcher who just left google, or a nice
grad student ot do this study and write it up for public consumption.

On Sun, Sep 28, 2008 at 12:26 PM, Robert Hoekman Jr <robert at rhjr.net> wrote:

> If you open a new window automatically for a user in a new window or tab,
>> it is the nature of the
>> speed of the browser and the fact the new window opens right on top of
>> the initial window that the user doesn't perceive what has happened. All
>> they know is the back button has mysteriously stopped working. Considering
>> it's the only control they really know how to use, this is upsetting to
>> them.
>>
>
> There has to be many exceptions to this guideline, though. Consider, for
> example, the usability issue caused by leaving a multi-state web app
> rendered via DHTML. Browsers don't cache the most recent page state—they
> cache what was loaded in the first place—so leaving a page and hitting the
> Back button can cause serious confusion and frustration.
>
> Another exception that appears to make sense is an inline external link,
> such as a link to another article in a blog post. Doesn't it make more sense
> to enable keeping both sites open at once (via a new window) than to assume
> the user will know a shortcut to open the new page in a new tab/window
> manually?
>
> I would so love to be wrong on this one, and I may just follow it as a
> guideline regardless (because, again, it makes my life easier and everyone
> seems to agree on it), but there are so many exceptions that, as a
> guideline, it's shaky at best. And without any real data, we're relying on
> thin information.
>
> -r-
>

27 Sep 2008 - 11:59pm
Tim Wright
2008

From a personal level, I really dislike sites that open links in new
windows. Like I'll try to avoid that site in future. My rationale is that if
I want a link to open in a new window then I'll middle click! (or ctrl click
:)

The only research I've found about this is Jakob Neilson's site (useit.com).
However, you'll have to use google to find the pages - I can never navigate
around it :)

Tim

On Sun, Sep 28, 2008 at 1:18 PM, Jonathan Abbett <jonathan at abbett.org>wrote:

> If it's any consolation, the technology itself offers some guidance--
>
> * Strict XHTML does not support the "target" attribute in an anchor tag
> * W3C accessibility guidelines instruct not to launch a new window
> "without informing the user"
> http://www.w3.org/TR/WAI-WEBCONTENT-TECHS/#tech-avoid-pop-ups
>
> I'm generally hesitant to let the lowest common denominator (i.e.
> text-based browsers) dictate how I implement a web site, but hewing to
> the standard might be wise. Looking forward to some hard evidence ;)
>
> -Jonathan
>
>
> On Sat, Sep 27, 2008 at 5:49 PM, Robert Hoekman Jr <robert at rhjr.net>
> wrote:
> >>
> >> I know the answer is "it depends", because there are certainly going to
> be
> >> exceptions to whatever the general best practice may be, but any actual
> data
> >> from usability research would be better than the articles I've found.
> >>
> >
> > Btw, if the general rule is to open links in the same window, then might
> > blogs be one of the exceptions? Instinctively, it seems wrong to have an
> > external link within a blog post open in the same window. You're
> essentially
> > hijacking your own content—the stuff you want the person to read—with
> > related or supporting content on another site. Yes, that's what the Back
> > button is for, I know, but it seems more logical to collect open windows
> of
> > the external links rather than go back-and-forth.
> >
> > Honestly, it would be a relief to be wrong about this. It would save me a
> > whole lot of hassle adding _blank to HREFs, but I'm concerned about
> whether
> > or not most web users know at least one way to open a link in a new
> window
> > or tab manually, and if only some users know these shortcuts, it feels
> like
> > bouncing them back-and-forth is less effective than new windows.
> >
> > Again, happy to be wrong, so please, argue with me.
> >
> > -r-
> > ________________________________________________________________
> > Welcome to the Interaction Design Association (IxDA)!
> > To post to this list ....... discuss at ixda.org
> > Unsubscribe ................ http://www.ixda.org/unsubscribe
> > List Guidelines ............ http://www.ixda.org/guidelines
> > List Help .................. http://www.ixda.org/help
> >
> ________________________________________________________________
> Welcome to the Interaction Design Association (IxDA)!
> To post to this list ....... discuss at ixda.org
> Unsubscribe ................ http://www.ixda.org/unsubscribe
> List Guidelines ............ http://www.ixda.org/guidelines
> List Help .................. http://www.ixda.org/help
>

--
Kei te kōrero tiki au. Kei te kōrero tiki koe. Ka kōrero tiki tāua. Kōrero
ai tiki tāua.

28 Sep 2008 - 3:28pm
Todd Barlow
2008

Hi,
I can summarize results of internal usability tests of our web
applications but, alas, I cannot share the data.

Most of our web applications support the creation and display of
reports. Reports are html pages of tables and graphs containing data
generated by the web application.

Our web applications rely on a separate product (another of our
products) for the reporting features. The product looks and behaves,
more or less, like the web application.

Unfortunately, technical implementation of the reporting products
forces us to open it in a separate browser window from the one
containing the web application. This means that the user can be
working in the web app, click on a link, and end up in the reporting
product in a new window.

Even though the products look and behave similarly, usability testing
showed that the spawning of the new window was disruptive. One of the
main problems was that it was unclear, to the user, why a new window
opened and what they could and should do with the web app window
while they were working in the reporting app window.

One of the main requirements for the next generation of the reporting
application is to provide access to the functionality without having
to open a separate window.

It's not data but I hope that helps.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Posted from the new ixda.org
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28 Sep 2008 - 3:51pm
Todd Barlow
2008

A general rule to open links in the same window presumes that most
users have a common goal and common tasks to achieve the goal.

If you are working on a site where people are merely browsing for
information, I can't argue with the guideline.

However, if you are designing web apps, it might be worth revisiting
some older research that isn't based on browsing but addresses
window management - which is at the heart of the "open in the same
window" guideline.

Here are a few of relevant papers on this topic.
http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=24056

http://csel.eng.ohio-state.edu/blog/wordpress/?p=10

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Posted from the new ixda.org
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29 Sep 2008 - 11:53am
Robert Hoekman, Jr.
2005

>
> Well, why follow the guideline when it's not appropriate? I hope that my
> explanation lets you quickly spot when you shouldn't follow this guideline.
>

Of course I'm not going to follow it blindly—that's not what I'm saying at
all. What I'm saying is that I imagine there are so many exceptions that
it's not very solid as a "guideline", and would be better treated as a
per-case decision.

We need an independantly wealthy researcher who just left google, or a nice
> grad student ot do this study and write it up for public consumption.
>

Jared. We need Jared. :)

-r-

29 Sep 2008 - 12:12pm
Jens Meiert
2004

> Instinctively, it seems wrong to have an external link within a blog post
> open in the same window.

Instinctively, it seems wrong to have almost anything open in a new
window, as we're dealing with hypertext … but I'm curious about your
findings, and if it will suggest to bow to territorial thinking. (My
bet is that most users do think "web", not "site", and I don't know
any conflicting research apart from some edge cases either.)

--
Jens Meiert
http://meiert.com/en/

29 Sep 2008 - 3:22pm
Viktor Reiter
2008

On websites like designfloat I would prefer if the links opened in a
seperate window/tab because I scroll through the list and open
everything interesting in a new window to read it. The same with
links to external pages.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Posted from the new ixda.org
http://www.ixda.org/discuss?post=33611

29 Sep 2008 - 3:01pm
Reagan Wright
2008

The only research I've found about this is Jakob Neilson's site
(useit.com). However, you'll have to use google to find the pages -
I can never navigate around it : )

That is a TERRIBLE thing... especially for a site on USABILITY! Lol

Reagan

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Posted from the new ixda.org
http://www.ixda.org/discuss?post=33611

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