Any web designer should be familiar with a client requesting that links to other websites should open in new windows/tabs and whilst it’s very easy to do, is it really the best solution for usability and accessibility? This article explores why this practice should no longer be standard behaviour.
One of the most common scenarios when building a website is for a client to request that a link pointing to an external website shouldn’t take the user away from their own site. The worry from a client’s perspective is that once a user leaves their website, they’ll lose that potential customer as they’ll no longer be on their website and therefore keeping the website in an inactive tab will remind the user of their previous intent.
This logic is sound but there are other factors that the client probably hasn’t considered.
New tabs aren’t accessible
Clients will be thinking of the user experience from their own perspective and don’t usually consider how other people may interact with a website. Some users may only use their keyboard to browse the web which means using new windows can be difficult to navigate. Other users may be using assistive technology such as screen readers and opening a new tab can be confusing as they may no longer be able to get back to the previous website they were using.
This means that rather than helping the user get back to your site, users are actually confused and presented with a much more difficult user experience than the one intended by opening windows in a new tab in the first place.
Confusing for novices
Web designers should consider themselves advanced users as we’re familiar with how tabs work and can instantly recognise when a link has opened in a new window but for people that aren’t as advanced, the experience can be disconcerting. It may be surprising but I’ve worked with certain users who don’t understand the concept of tabs at all and when they’ve finished browsing simply close the browser rather than going back to open tabs.
The back button won’t work
In my opinion, this is the major problem with opening links in new tabs and is related to the above two points. Anyone who doesn’t understand how tabs work or realise that a website has opened in a new tab will be disorientated as they won’t be able to use the back button to get back to where they previously were.
This actually gives the impression that the back button is broken and despite the initial intention that the new tab will help people get back to the previous website, this can actually have the reverse implication.
No control over new tab or new window
Some users may have their browser settings set to open external links in a new window rather than a new tab. This can lead to the new window hiding the original website with no obvious way for the user to get back to what they were previously viewing.
This will again cause the back button not to work but will also give the user no visible indication of where they had come from. Assuming that this scenario would be most common for novice users or people with accessibility issues, this escalates the problem further for them.
It doesn’t give advanced users a choice
I’d consider myself an advanced user and therefore if I’m browsing a website and spot a link that I’d like to read later then I’ll deliberately open it in a new tab. However, if I’ve finished browsing a website then I’ll simply click the link and want it to open in the same window. If a website forces a link to open in a new tab then I’ll usually simply close the previous tab anyway so the whole purpose of this opening in a new window is pointless if I didn’t want it to.
It also means that the website is attempting to make decisions on my behalf. If I want to open a new tab then I have the ability to do so, if I want to continue using the same tab then I’d like that choice, so a website shouldn’t try and second guess what the user wants to do without solid data or user experience testing to back it up.
New tabs aren’t mobile friendly
I personally find opening links in new tabs extremely frustrating on mobile devices as the tab experience isn’t as friendly compared to the desktop browser. Quite often after reading articles and clicking through to related websites from one website to another I’ll notice that multiple websites are open in the background and have to go through the time consuming task of closing all those tabs which are no longer relevant.
There are some scenarios where new tabs may be appropriate but in my opinion these should be the exception where a clear purpose has been considered and all the advantages and disadvantages above have been weighed up.
Users have a number of ways to save a website to come back to later if they wish including bookmarks, pocket and a whole range of social media tools so that they can share articles and content.
Feel free to comment below if you have had any similar experiences with clients or a difference of opinion.