Pop-up notification in the present state of the web

Submitted by Brian on February 5, 2013 - 2:21pm
the fight for attention and the place for the infamous and age-old pop-up.

There are numerous ways that you may grab someone’s attention. You might raise your voice, tap them on the shoulder, or make eye contact with them. 

In the municipal world, attention grabbers are often used for safety and well-being. When you drive down the road and the train crossing arms come down letting you know that a train is on the way.  Another is when a siren is going off and lights are flashing, letting you know there is a fire in the building. 

But what about grabbing someone’s attention on the web?

In any good user experience, one of the main goals is to train the user to navigate efficiently. That said, given time and iterations-after-iteration of a site often leaves pieces of functionality or text hard to reach. This is where things go seriously wrong; now all the sudden you have to come up with a solution that overturns the rabbit-hole that was dug.  In comes the pop-up. A seemingly simple, quick fix to get the users attention. You see this all the time: Instructions for something that is not obvious, promotions for a new offer, sign-up for a new newsletter campaign or reminders to take an action.

Are people really paying attention? 

The short answer is: not really. We have trained people to ignore these messages, dismissing them as an advertisement or something that is taking them away from the driver seat and not allowing them to browse freely. Using pop-up notifications to fix a UX problem that is a result of poor planning. Furthermore, the odds are stacked against you: 

  • Will people take the time to read what you have to say
  • If the user is coming to the site for the first time, they probably don’t have much interest in your specials or newsletter. 
  • What are the chances that a user will take action at that exact moment

But do they work?

I haven’t totally ruled the use of pop-ups out of the question as a practical use for directing a user to something important. What is really sensitive is the timing and placement. 

For example, here are some good uses that have proven results to work:

  • When you are uploading an image to a site, after the upload is complete, prompting a pop-up where the user fills out the title, meta data, tags, description is a handy way to get more complete data on submit.
  • If you are running an e-commerce site, when a user spends (x) amount of time viewing a product, pop-up a discount offer for the user if they sign-up for the newsletter. If this will both increase the chances of them purchasing the product, as well is getting them hooked on the newsletter.
  • When you have an authenticated user logged into your site, if there is an idle time sessions expiration, prompt the user letting them know the session is going to expire and restart it if they take action.
  • Prompting a notification after submission of a form with the results (success, error, etc.). This method will limit the workflow and guarantee they know that the site has received it.

If you use them, here are some tips:

Use them sparingly, eliminate generic messages. Gaining trust of your user is one of the most important things a site can do to get people coming back. They want to know what to expect, and, when you trust you that something is important. 

Make it very brief: How many people first read the manual when they get a new gadget in the mail? Lets be honest, even if you have an important message, the chances that a user will take the time to read a paragraph of text is pretty unlikely. 

Don’t force an action: if a user is required to take an action, such as sign up for a newsletter, change their password, or take a tour, and they are not ready to do that, they will likely leave the site.

Repetition is annoying, set cookies: if you decide to send a users a notification, make sure to set a cookie in their browser so that next time they come back, they don’t get this notification again. 

Never use a modal/pop-up as a security portal: Is has become popular among recent retail sites to force users to give their email address to access the site (often redirects from facebook ads and search engine ads). Often times this is entirely client side scripting, meaning there is no validation that the user enters anything.