No, pop-ups can’t be part of a good UX – ever.

SUMMARY:

An article justifying pop-ups as good UX stuck in my craw. I couldn’t wait until Friday for this roast.

unicorn-fantay-textNever make the mistake of assuming you’ve seen it all. There’s someone out there doing something ridiculous to make money. Or worse: providing a rationale for the ridiculousness.

Pop-ups are an infatuation of online marketers because you can beef up your email lists if you assault visitors with in-your-face crap while they are trying to get something done. I’ve blasted Bounce Exchange in the past – those are the insulting pop-ups where your “no thanks”/opt-out box is usually accompanied by some type of patronizing mockery, e.g. “No thanks, I’m not interested in winning free things.”

As it turns out, there are plenty of articles justifying these “get my newsletter” popups from a pure conversion perspective. Alas, from a pure, myopically-narrow list conversion perspective, these pop-ups appear to work.

Las week, I saw something I thought I’d never see: an article rationalizing pop-ups from a user experience standpoint (How to Use Popups Without Ruining Your User Experience). And that’s one rationalization too many, dear readers, for this petulant scribe.

Pop-ups, by definition, ruin the user experience. That’s it. If a pop-up gets opt-ins for an inconsequential newsletter that Gmail filters out anyway, fine. But don’t claim pop-ups are good UX.

The article appeared on usertesting.com, which in fairness is one of the better UX sites I’ve found. It’s a guest piece by an author with skin in the game. He’s the founder of a company that offers pop-up technology designed for those visitors who have the nerve to exit a web site – a technology that they call “online retargeting.”

Let’s examine the arguments I’ve run into for pop-ups-as-good UX.

1. “If you design it well, users won’t mind.”

Umm… yes they will. But there’s a bigger problem: you’re now confusing UX design – a narrower topic – with user experience. From a strict UX design perspective, I’ll grant that you could design an aesthetically acceptable pop-up. On usertesting.com, the example of a pop-up on booking.com is used. I think it looks crummy, you can judge for yourself, but from a broader user experience standpoint, we’re at an impasse. “A good example from Booking.com of how to retain abandoning visitors with a popup without being too intrusive or distracting your visitors too much.”

“Too much” is a subjective judgement call you’re making on behalf of your users because you want the conversions. That’s not acceptable UX – unless your users have specifically told you during UX user research they enjoy pop-ups. Good luck with that.

This is the booking.com example of what the author calls a “tastefully designed” pop-up:

vacationrental

Bonus: the design includes a sarcastic/patronizing remark to the reader if they want to opt-out.

2. “As long as you don’t show them a pop-up upon entry, it’s ok.”

If I’m walking in a park, I’d rather step on dog poop at the end of my walk than the beginning. But all things being equal, I’d rather not step in poop at all.

3. “If the pop-up shows relevant content, it’s not annoying.”

All pop-ups are, by their definition, annoying. If your content is so amazing, so deeply relevant, I will eventually find it and I will probably do business with you. Maybe not today, but tomorrow or the next. If you have something truly great or indispensable on your site, all my colleagues will be sharing it, and I’ll be back.

Here’s the “relevant content” rationale: “If the content helps the visitor solve their problem, find the right solution, or get answers to their questions, the popup won’t be perceived as annoying.”

Perhaps. But I’ve never had a pop-up answer a specific question I had, so I can’t say. I’ve had plenty of web sites answer my questions, and if they do it exceptionally or consistently, I subscribe to them. What about this is broken that requires a pop-up guessing at my intent?

Instead, it will be seen as helpful, or at least as intending to help, not disturb.”
Not sure what UX planet you are living on, but helpful is not about being interrupted. It’s about being there when I need you. It’s about letting me easily escalate the relationship. Pop-ups are like copping a feel. They are completely out of context of the content date we are having. It will be seen for what it is: an aggressive attempt to secure my opt-in. If it works, then it works. I’ve bought products from aggressive salespeople before. But leave “good UX” out of it.

4. Personalize your pop-ups by visitor groups.

Two problems: personalized pop-ups are still pop-ups. I don’t care if you left the poop on my sidewalk specifically for me to step in. It’s still poop. Second: classifying visitors into interest groups is a difficult task until itself. My interests tend to be individual, so if you send me a group message, I know you’re guessing. Lumping me into an “interest group” isn’t so personal.

This supposedly good example ad of “personalized pop-up” also includes an insult:

bounce-exchange-fun

If you’re going to insult me when I opt-out, at least give me a “Yo mama!”. That would at least crack a smile.

5. A/B test your pop-ups.

Yes, testing works for determining the best conversion rates But it does nothing for me from a user experience standpoint. The user experience is still sub-optimal. Where is an article from a site visitor asking for more pop-ups? You won’t find such an article from anyone – anywhere on the web.

From another article rationalizing pop-ups, I found these additional “pop-ups are good for UX” arguments:

6. Users don’t care because they don’t complain.

Consider this a formal complaint. Your pop-ups suck.

More rationalizations: “Visitors don’t seem to really care about it at all. “We had absolutely zero user complaints” said the guys from WPBeginner.”

Well, first off, it takes some effort to complain properly in this world. An annoying pop-up is pretty far down on the complaints list, below an Internet outage, a cancelled plane flight, or a blue screen of death. Doesn’t mean it’s not irritating. Also, I have no business relationship with you. If you had a box on your site saying “do you hate our pop-ups,” I would have clicked “yes.”

7. We only show the same reader a pop-up once a month, so that makes it good UX.

I don’t want to see the pop-up once a year. And: you’re assuming I’m using the same browser with the same cookies on the same device. Nah, I’m gonna see that pop-up more than once a month.

8. Bounce rate didn’t go up, so we’re all set.

A bounce rate is a small piece of the puzzle. It doesn’t account for brand perception. I can tell you this: I am less likely to socially share and refer pages and web sites that have pop-ups. Where’s the data on that behavior?

More justification for user interruption:

Plus if I’m really smart I can actually use popups to enhance UX like Vero does. When you stay for longer than 30 seconds on their landing page and don’t take action a popup in the right corner of your browser window will appear asking “What is the main thing preventing you from signing up to Vero at this point?””

Thanks for letting me know, I’ll avoid Vero like the plague. That may be a useful data gathering and conversion tool. But that’s not a better user experience.

There is ONE thing I can think of that might improve my UX via pop-up. If the founder of your site – not a low-level service rep 5,000 miles away, but your founder – sent me a pop-up instant message asking me, “What do you think of our site? Did you find what you were looking for?” And then interacted with me thoughtfully. That might work. But that’s about one-to-one relationships – and the great user experience that stems from making such a connection.

The wrap – pop-ups may convert, but they don’t UX

I used to frequent a a tech site called Toolbox a lot. I don’t come around much anymore – the good content has (mostly) moved on. Recently I got a Bounce Exchange pop-up on their site:

toolbox-popup-fun

I simply assumed, as I usually do when I get those, “Uh oh – Toolbox is getting desperate.” Is that good for a brand?

One of the biggest rationales for pop-ups is that you must go for the chokehold because that visitor may never come back. If you lose that visitor, they won’t return to your site – ever again.

Well no, they won’t return to your site – unless you have great information and are experts in something they care about. I view folks who leave a site without engagement as a challenge, not a mark. Guess what? If they’re a good fit for your product and industry, you’ll get them back. They’ll find you on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. They’ll sign up for your webinars, they’ll go to your events. They’ll subscribe to the newsletter you feature at the bottom of each excellent post. They’ll be back.

Den Howlett tackled similar issues in his recent diginomica post, Ad blockers: the debate rages on. He quotes Doc Searls, who questions whether opt-ins gained with interruption tactics are worth having: “genuine relationships are worth far more than the kind that is coerced.”

This author found that “people who subscribe via pop-ups aren’t as engaged as those who subscribe from a form on your website or landing page.” The evidence supporting pop-ups is mostly about adding emails to subscription lists, not following sign-ups through to an actual purchase.

I’d be an idiot to pretend that interruption marketing doesn’t work. The TV industry was built on it. But I do think interruption marketing is fading compared to winning attention from audiences with great content. B2B companies should be especially careful about pop-ups, given that their audiences are limited, cautious in buying, and looking for long-term relationships with experts they can trust.

Pop-ups may be effective from a very narrow view. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t see so many of them. But let’s view them for what they are. Dressing them up as “good UX” is a futile endeavor that obscures an honest assessment.

Image credit: Единорог © gekata1989 – Fotolia.com