Do pop-ups (modals) really work or can they be harmful to your user experience?

Providing your user with a positive experience is key to the success of your website. Studies have suggested that the experience of enjoyment has a number of major components when that experience is most positive.

The ability to concentrate on what you’re doing, a sense of control and an effortless involvement that dissipates worry are often all mentioned.

Bearing this in mind, presenting the user with a pop-up (or modals as they are also called) that disturbs their concentration and removes control, may suggest they can be quite harmful and have a negative influence on engagement.

Are you sure you want to leave?

Pop-ups are great when used in the right context; they focus the user’s attention and can make some processes simple and effortless. However, they can take control away from the user at a time when they want to be in control.

There’s a trend now where pop-ups appear when the user hovers over the browser toolbar, as if the user was going to click the home button or close the tab – a last ditch attempt is made to convert that user with a discount offer code or get them to sign up to a newsletter for example.

Is this good practice? Is making one last attempt to convert a visitor as it looks like they are leaving your website, actually going to work, or is it going to frustrate and alienate? If they have made a decision to leave your website, preventing them from doing so until they close a pop-up box, could potentially provide such a negative experience that they may decide never to return, even though their initial intention was to do so later.

People like autonomy and control

Taking control away from the user can provide negative emotions and this in turn, is reflective of you and your business. If you sign up to a company newsletter, you are naturally interested in hearing from that company, but if abused, and you are bombarded with email after email, that is likely to provoke a negative reaction – you have taken any sense of control away from the user and so they unsubscribe.

But everyone else is doing it so it must work, right?

Just because something is very popular doesn’t mean it works. Bosses throughout the land see things their competitors are doing and want the same – ‘if they have it I want it – if they’re using it, it must work!’ Certain practices are adopted without any data to prove they actually work. We’re not saying they don’t work, but as practitioners and preachers of good user experience design, we’re skeptical.

Pop-ups do work in the right situation

Pop-ups focus the user’s attention and can make processes appear quick and simple; that’s great for promoting a sense of positivity within the user. So when should you use them?

Well, an ideal time to use a pop-up is when it becomes part of the flow of a process – for instance, if you have a ‘Sign up to our newsletter’ button on your page and the user clicks on it, they have already bought into the process, they want to sign up! A pop-up is a great way of focusing the user on completing this process without taking them away from their original journey through your website. They complete the form, click ‘Subscribe’ and they are back where they were.

We believe there’s a time and place for pop-ups and we think we know when and where. Engaging your visitors and converting them into customers is all about providing them with a positive experience on your website. We don’t believe in following trends if they are potentially harmful to your success. We will always advise our customers, but ultimately it’s your decision.