Miss Manners Guide to Opening Links in New Windows

New Window IconAt work we had a debate late in the day today about whether the links to projects in our portfolio should, when clicked upon, open up in a new browser window. My feeling is that, no, they should not, citing various usability recommendations against the practice (more here and here), and also the fact that the way the Web is evolving, popping up new windows is a practice most often used in hard-sell situations (insert links to any given hard core pornography site here).

Personally, it annoys the heck out of me when a Web site opens up a new window, as I think it’s bad manners and has the feel of amateurishness. But I admit that viewpoint could be just a combination of a skewed, blog-centric view of the Web (few if any weblogs open links in any new windows, by my count) and my own personal capacity for stubbornness.

No One Gets Out of This Portfolio Alive?

There’s also the argument to be made that, in a portfolio site (or section of a site), opening new windows is entirely appropriate. The purpose of such a Web page is to provide, as one colleague put it, “a menu” from which users can select work, review it, and to which they then return to repeat the cycle. To send them away to another site in the same browser window may be tantamount to losing them forever — forget usability, it’s a sales failure.

Could be, could be. Though I always feel like users navigate plenty of menus throughout the Web — at Amazon and Del.icio.us, among others — and that most of them don’t spawn new windows, and those same users have no problems using the Back button to get back (like the scroll bar, I’m a firm believer in the idea that users will use these browser features instinctively and inveterately).

Usability vs. Marketing

The tension here is between usability principles and marketing — between serving as a kind of exemplar of good practices for Web design on our own site, and fulfilling a marketing need to ensure that every customer is retained absolutely and without fail. I don’t really buy spawning new windows as a key to the latter, because I feel like we will tick off more users than we’ll convenience. But I keep coming back to the idea that it is a portfolio site, after all, and also to the fact that I’m a stubborn bastard. So if you have a cogent counterpoint to my own position — especially if you run a portfolio site of your own — please school me, yo.



  1. What I want is HTML for “open window in a new tab”. With appropriate warning (“This window will open in a new tab”), this gets around most of the accessibility issues, and also doesn’t clutter the user’s desktop or taskbar (shudder) with extra windows. I spend most of my time with my thumb on the Apple key as I scan a page for useful links, ready to file the links into tabs for later browsing, but I’m willing to bet that I’m in a huge minority, particularly given that the world’s browser-of-choice doesn’t support tabs (or the Apple key, for that matter…)

  2. I just read an article at guuui.com that explains how most internet users don’t bother to use navigation at all. They click until they find what they want and use the back button as their navigation. Of course, the people looking at your portfolio probably aren’t average internet users. Still, I think this is reason enough to keep things in the same window. Of course, if your portfolio is all in flash, thus disabling the back button, I would recommend a pop-up.

  3. It should be all about choice for the user – either two links/icons (open in new window/this window) or a way to self-select a global behaviour, perhaps a cookied preference to say “I always want a new window”.

  4. I remember when blogs were first starting and everyone had that little checkbox up top or above their link list with an “Open links in new window” text next to it (take a look here next to the logo – a discreet but nice way to do it). I’m actually curious why no one (especially those early weblogs) really does it anymore. It used to be such a trend. Maybe it needs to come back.

  5. Good topic. The practice of opening links in new windows has its place, though it has been abused by amateurs and sites that never want you to leave. (The automatic spawning of new windows, used by porn sites, is another issue.) Opening new windows is often a lazy design solution; designers should aspire to create sites that does not require them.

    I prefer that all-Flash sites open links in new windows, so that I don’t have to go through the trouble of starting from the beginning again if I want to return to where I was. Some would argue that this is a reason to avoid creating all-Flash sites (Jason Kottke recently supported 43 Folders viewpoint on this matter), but I disagree. All-Flash sites too have their place. I wouldn’t want a web without immersive all-Flash sites, such as those for movies created by Big Spaceship. Perhaps in the future Flash should include anchors that allow deep linking and skipping ahead as on DVDs.

    Sorry to go off-topic a bit. (As a joke, in this comment, I made the links open in new windows, but target=”blank” got stripped away when I previewed it. Jokes on me.)

  6. I found Mark Hurst’s Page Paradigm, which describes, as one of two usage patterns that are nearly constant on all Web pages, the idea that users will always click on the Back button as their primary navigation device. Popping up a new window breaks that button. That’s bad.

  7. Wonderful new design here.

    On topic, I struggle with when to open links in a new window. I prefer the small icon off to the side of a link, but that gets cumbersome. As one who simply right clicks to invoke a new tab, I don’t much think about it personally. But there’s the notion of maintaining your place on a page that has merit.

    Like exploring the sites of those who comment on your blog here, I like that they open in a new window automatically. I can maintain location in a thread and explore without too much angst.

  8. Well, the fact that they open in a new window is an artifact of the default Movable Type templates, I believe, which I hacked and stole from to produce these templates. I intended to remove that feature (d’oh!). Like you, I use tabs a heck of a lot to ‘maintain place.’

  9. Whenever this topic get’s mentioned it invariably leans towards the ‘no’ new browser window camp. However I think it’s worth mentioning the situations in which they are desirable, and arguably, prefered. Such as when your checking out of a shopping cart or running through a task on a site as opposed to just browsing.

    For instance if you click on ‘return policy’ or ‘privacy policy’ in the middle of filling out a sipping form, these should not take you away from your task. These are great uses of a new window so you don’t freak your user out into thinking they lost their information. Of course you can still give them a choice with an icon, but by making a new window the default behavior your saving a potential disaster for your user.

  10. I think Matthew Pennell has the right idea, is there any reason why we can’t have two links – one that opens in a new window and another that doesn’t?

    After all, it is the visitor who may or may not want to open them in a new browser window.

    Personaly, when I come across a portfolio site, I open each item in a new tab myself – of course if they’ve used javascript to create the popup window I end up with an empty pages… which is when i just shut them all and never return. 😉

  11. Hope I’m not butting in… I’d argue that it depends on your users, at least to an extent. I prefer pop-ups for portfolios because it saves my finger the trip from the left to middle mouse buttons and since my left hand is permanently near Ctrl-W, closing is no hassle. I’m also aware that I’m not a typical user. That said, my favourite solution above is adding a new window icon/link, perhaps with a simple DOM script to keep things clean…

  12. I’m of the opinion that links should never (or practically never) open in any way other than the normal, same-window behavior. For the many people with decent browsers, if the user wants a new tab the user just uses a different mouse button, so it’s just as convenient and easy either way but the user decides. And for those still using deprecated browsers, at worst it’s a right-click and a click away, which is essentially as easy. I see no compelling advantage to popping up links that would justify that unexpetdness of behavior, lack of control, non-uniformity, etc.

  13. First, i agree with everything you’ve said. New windows should be used sparingly—external links in a portfolio, shopping carts, and as Ryan said above, any clarification information while in the middle of making some sort of purchase.

    Curiosity has me questioning how this argument will develop as the option to open a page in a new tab in the new breed of browsers becomes popular. (Is there a convenient way to do this yet, from a developer’s standpoint?) Will linking etiquette change to allow for new tabs in certain circumstances, while strictly forbidding new windows altogether, will it suggest some blend of the two, or will it even become an issue at all?

  14. Normally I don’t think twice about this: in most cases I think it’s entirely unnecessary to open a new window (for a simple external link, for example). There are some limited cases where the obvious choice is to open a new window, like this radio player I designed. But there are two cases where I often debate over it and never quite seem to decide:

    1. Enlarged views of images. In many cases it just seems more convenient to me. Particularly in a blog, for example, where you might have a long page that links to images in various spots. Opening it in a new window makes it easy to keep your place in the original page. Not all browsers remember where you had scrolled to when you hit the back button, so it can be a real pain otherwise. Even in a browser that does remember, it seems faster and more convenient to me to close a window rather than hitting back and waiting for the page to load again.

    2. Portfolio sites. This is the one I really struggle with. I usually go with opening a new window, though I’m never entirely confident in that decision. It makes sense to me though; I think I’d even say that I prefer when portfolio sites open examples in a new window.

    I don’t think the average person will open a new window on their own. So say you have a portfolio of web sites. User clicks a link, it opens in the same window. Fine, they can just hit back, everyone knows that. But chances are they want to look around that site a little bit. A few more clicks, and now they have to hit back several times to return to your site! Sure they can use the back button menu, but it all seems like a real usability mess. If it’s not easy to get back to your site, will they bother? Even if they originally wanted to?

    The only thing I don’t like about this solution is that I prefer to open external links in new tabs. When you use JavaScript to open a new window, there’s no way to override that and open it in a tab instead. And if you don’t use JavaScript, you can’t use valid XHTML (it may be valid in 1.0 transitional but I don’t recall), and you can’t control the size of the window (making it likely the new window will cover the old one).

    Having two links always seems a little obnoxious to me, and is probably confusing to a lot of people. Chances are one will be the primary link, and most people are going to click that one without thinking twice. So it seems to me you still have to make a choice about what is better.

    I’m starting to think that the ideal choice is to open a new window by default. That takes care of the average user. Then somewhere put an option to make those links open in the same window. Most people won’t use it, but as long as it’s not too out of the way, the most advanced users—the ones more likely to want it—will find it and use it.

    For me—at least in my own portfolio—it really isn’t about usability versus marketing. I’m just plain interested in usability, and opening my work in a new window seems like the best usability choice to me. I think it helps a lot that this is pretty common (and thus expected) behavior for both portfolios and enlarged images. That alone can take away a lot of the obnoxiousness and frustration of it. Better yet if you provide some indication that a new window will open… The two boxes overlapping has become a common symbol for this, and I think it works well. I think it’s also best to open the new window as small as possible (without being inconvenient) to make it doubly clear a new window has opened. If the new window covers the old one, you definitely risk confusion.

    I’m looking at this page, linked to above, and I think the advice there is pretty sound. Using a tooltip in addition to an icon is a good idea that I think I’ll put to use.

  15. Personally, if the link does not open in a new window I rarely return to the previous site unless it is essential. The back button is annoying in it’s own right especially when you go to another site, then that takes you to another site, then there is even more you would like to look at- now I have to back up 90 paces. Since I use mainly Safari now a days I always open EVERY link in a new tab. Clicking on a TITLED tab is more usable to assuming with a back button where one might end up. Sure, we can hold the mouse over the back button but that just adds more navigation. If I am 4 website in, all with their own navigation schemes, now I have those plus the navigation of the back button. I rather every page be exactly what it is- it’s own page.

  16. Personally I just open everything in tabs. I hate opening links in the same window, because I always end up getting lost, or when I return I don’t end up at the same point on the page (a big deal with blogs and forums with long pages). As such, I’ve been making my blogroll with “_blank” targets (and Firefox opens them in new tabs).

    But given the overall sentiment here, maybe I’ll rethink this design approach and reset those targets.

    As for popups like haloscan has, I’m a bit mixed. On the one hand, it’s nice to have a quick window for trackbacks and what not. But in the end I think I prefer dhtml-hidden text. New windows for the same site just seem strange to me — even on a portfolio, unless it’s a large image/spread that would break the page layout.

    A little late to this discussion, but I just discovered this blog, and absolutely love the photography. It’s going on my blogroll. As for whether it will have its own target, well, that could all change in a day or three.

  17. Hello all please pardon my butting in as this is about your portfoilos and not web sites in general but since they have been mentioned as examples, I felt it important to point out a few things If I may.

    Amoung other things I am a web designer and SEO,and have to comment here on a point perhaps not noticed for the general web, in that the go back and reload a Gallery or other navigation page, means reloading the same page over and over again which effects transfer limits. I run an Art Gallery and the amount of data transfer is high.

    Many of us on the net, the smaller ones of us anyway, are dealing with very finite data Transfer limits, which is why I started forceing my viewers to new windows where ever possible on my own sites at any rate. And put things in series loops, for my cleints sites I build.

    My Personal site used to be on a free server, years ago, as a great many still are and I had very tight data transfer limits, so each page a viewer reloaded upped transfer count, till my site went offline daily due to this behavior, due to its popularity.

    It would be nothing unsual to see on the logs that the main page had been loaded 20-40 or more times, by the same vistor, coming back over and over to get to something new, despite repeted requests to right click and open a new window.

    It was nothing uncommon to see in a day, 2000, 3000 loads of the front page alone, and It got so bad I finally forced the issue as the site was getting shut down for going over what my host would allow, you see it daily on the net, good sites that can not stay online for the day, due to going bust on their transfer limits.

    Both those sites are now paid which has higher transfer limits but none the less still has them, so the forced issue of new windows for new data continues where ever is reasonalbe to do it. To those with tranfer to burn, its more a matter of perferance, but to a lot of us out here on the Net in general its a matter of survival.

    E. Weiss

  18. I would mostly agree with media girl‘s comments above. In fact, I would go one step further and make a general statement about how I expect links to act:

    1. relative links inside the same logical sitespace should open in the same window.
    2. absolute links or links to another sitespace should open in a new window by default

    The fact that there is no default distinction made between the behaviour of relative and absolute links is bizarre to say the least. Why conserve browser windows when I want to go (or send someone) to another site or on another domain? Yes, I know how to use target attributes but a few billion webpages out there don’t. From a developer point of view, this corrected browser behaviour would not break any functionality of current pages since there is no server-side session between different sites and/or domains.

    This works in general for me and any exceptions can be made within the browser’s (and the user’s) capabilities.

  19. well, i’m not a member of any kind of web/design/programing group (just a bored individual near the end of her work day).

    i have never talked about this with anyone, but i really, really hate it with things open up in the same window. i’m a multi-tasker, and if i’m reading an article with an imbedded link in it, i might open it up right away just to peek, but i’m going to close it to get back to my original article. that peek might take me to a whole bunch of other places within that new window… i don’t want to have to click the back button a million times to get back to my first reading.

    if i had known all i had to do to open an article in a new winder was right click it, i would have done it. it’s not like they tell you that when you open your browser for the first time.

    i think, particularly for blogging, opening in new windows is nice, because so often there are multiple references in a blog to other random things… it’s nice to have that original page with you the whole time.

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