This post began sometime last week: I was in a meeting and the subject of links opening in new windows came up. Somebody was noting how it had caused a user problems on a certain site. Internally, I flew into a rage. IT'S TWO-THOUSAND-@#$%ing-NINE, more than two millennia since Jesus first came to earth to tell people not to use target="_blank" on their links, and we're still dealing with this crap?
Like any mature adult, I dealt with this by throwing together a bookmarklet to express my rage and righteous damnation of all links that open in a new window. You, too, may use the fruits of that indignation by dragging the Link Witch Hunt to your bookmarks toolbar. Use it to conduct a witch hunt on any page you're viewing to scour it for offensive links. If the site passes, it gets a benevolent green congratulatory message. If it does not, however, the severity of its offense will be judged and all links angrily flagged for the world to see.
With this tool in one hand and a torch burning in the other, I went in search of particularly offensive sites. Our own PBS.org was quickly burned, Facebook's sins were even more flagrant, and--naturally--the sites of a few of my web gurus were revealed to be utterly pristine.
I must admit I shed a few tears when I had to tie Twitter to the stake, too.
Over the weekend, all of this burning and damnation caused me to reflect on a few things. Did I really have the right attitude about links that opened in a new window? Were they as bad as I felt they were? Were they equally bad in all instances?
So I hunted down some of the original gospel on the subject from Jakob Neilsen :
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). If I want a new window, I will open it myself!
The Back button is the lifeline of the Web user and the second-most used navigation feature (after following hypertext links). Users happily know that they can try anything on the Web and always be saved by a click or two on Back to return them to familiar territory.
I've made the argument many times in my years on the job: the back button is the most important usability feature on the web, and any interference with it is a bad idea. Opening new windows is confusing when it is not expected or understood and offensive when it is not desired. Websites need to be in the business of making their content good enough for visitors to value, not engaging in ridiculous corralling of their users by trying to block off the exits.
If I were to try to articulate the most common reason for having links open in new windows, it would go something like this: our site is the base, you see. Things we link to are meant to be temporary resources or avenues of exploration: we want the visitor to return to our site when she is done.
There's something tremendously antidemocratic about this, and there's a kind of anti-fascistic fervor in the sentiments of people like me who hate this behavior. We want to judge for ourselves what the base of our operations is: what's a temporary exploration and what we want to return to repeatedly. If your site can convince me of that, great; if it can't, I'm not going to look kindly on your attempts to tyrannize my behavior.
But--people tell me--sometimes I WANT things to open in a new window. It lets me check something out without losing where I am!
The classic answer to this is that the user can always do this: use cmd+click or ctrl+click or even right-click + open in a new tab/window. It's easy to do and allows users to determine how they want to browse.
I don't think the problem is so easily dismissed, though. There's an inconvenient fact still lurking: when a site is correct about how you want to use it, it is easier--and therefore of value to you--to have things open in a new window on their own than to require a different kind of link activation.
There's nothing terribly difficult about hitting cmd+click for me: I've got two able arms with able fingers attached to the hands that join them, but Twitter's completely right that I always want its links to open in new windows and that I appreciate not having to think about it. Twitter's my base, man: I want to have my place saved while your picture of your adorable bull-dog loads in another window.
Sure: many users may not understand this behavior (some users will not notice that a new window has opened), but Twitter's success, it seems to me, is based off of making the basic use of its service immensely easy and simple for the majority of its users. The convenience of knowing the best way to use it may well outweigh the cost of alienating a certain percentage of potential users.
And I'm not even like the substantial number of web users I've encountered who understand how new window behavior works and frequently value it, but have no idea that they could trigger this behavior themselves through their keyboard or right mouse button. That knowledge seems to be confined to the more advanced, but not the ability to manipulate multiple tabs and handle different windows.
So, let's take this further: what if PBS is right that a lot of its users view it as significant enough that they WANT that link to NPR to open in another window? That they appreciate being able to come to PBS when they're done?
I dunno, man. I find that really hard to buy. But I'd like to know: what's your experience? Are you tired of web folks screaming about a potentially useful feature? Or are you tempted to say that this disruption of standard link behavior is even worse than I'm making it out to be?