Pop-ups, Menus, and Usability

Does everyone, like me, find pop-up windows annoying? Many people do. Pop-up windows are, in the mind of a simple user, spam ads to be avoided like the plague. To the power user, they also ring a bell: licence agreements which appear when new software is installed.

Do these two ways of using pop-up windows have any difference? Yes they do. One doesn’t even have to think to reply: it’s not “Yes, they do”, it’s “Yes they do”, as fast as you can speak. The difference is pretty simple; you are forced to see an ad which you don’t have to on the one hand, while you are forced to read the licence agreement when you install something, because you have to.

Pop-ups is the ultimate situation when someone deliberately breaks the user experience. How is this situation relevant to today’s Brave New Web2.0 World? Your OS has loads of stuff installed for you; you rarely install software with the frequency you used to. Moreover, the pop-up blocker of your browser is up and running; you come across just a few pop-up ads.

However, with the rapid expansion of Ajax, these occasions re-appeared in the form of menus. Ajax menus are everywhere–you cannot hide: wherever you hover your mouse, something will pop-up. This something will probably be irrelevant to the content you are viewing at that moment. Look at the following example:

pop-up menu screenshot

pop-up menu screenshot

This is an example of a menu which covers almost one fourth of the video. Clicking anywhere does not make the annoying menu disappear, so you really have to pause the video in order to figure how to get rid of the menu. Actually, it might be the case that you get rid of the menu for the first time without knowing exactly how you managed; the next time the menu pop-ups, you have to pause the video again, try to make the menu disappear, etc. You really want to navigate away from this page.

As a web developer who wants to avoid such usability issues, you can try the following:

  1. Keep it simple: don’t overuse Ajax or whatever new comes to the surface just because you can. It is good to remember that functionality is not a list of features: in the above screenshot, the functionality of the system is served if you can watch the video, not if you have the features of a video and a menu but you can use neither.
  2. If you really have to use such features, don’t break the user experience unless you want to present legal information. In the above example, you could have the menu below the video player; in this way the menu will pop-up but will not get in the way of viewing the video. That is, it will not get in the way of what this system was designed for.
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