"And I think over a decade of user confusion and frustration resulting from target="_blank" backs that up."
Do you have any links to to back this claim?
Open New Windows for PDF and other Non-Web Documents (Jakob Nielsen, 2005) 
The Top 10 Web Design Mistakes of 1999 (Jakob Nielsen, 1999) 
Top 10 Mistakes in Web Design (Jakob Neilsen, 2011) 
We gain nothing by "keeping the user on our site." The user doesn't care, to them it's all just content they want to look at. If they want to come back to our site they can use the back button, the most popular feature on a browser. If we open new windows we are: littering the user's screen; breaking their chain of navigation; and if they're on a mobile device, consuming extra RAM and causing other windows to disappear prematurely.
Since then a lot has changed, including the spread of multi-tabbed browsing (which one could imagine would have a huge impact on this issue) and drastic changes in the way web applications are designed. Is the "back" feature even still the most popular feature on a browser? While this claim would have been indisputable a few years ago, I seem to almost never use it these days unless I accidentally clicked on the wrong link. At least in my case, the evolutions I mentioned have changed the way I use my browser quite a lot. Less anecdotically, this does seem to be a more global trend since on Chrome for Android the back button has even been demoted to the "More" menu, while tab-switching has been given a more prominent spot (swipe from edge).
Not saying it has now become good to open links in new windows of course, but I'd be curious to see more recent research about the topic.
If anything, we can an extra issue and suggest it's even worse nowadays. Per parent, it gobbles RAM on mobile devices, and this leads other tabs to close prematurely. It also turns older devices into helicopters when the fan kicks in.
But if you really need one, here's a study:
Date: just now.
Author: yours truly.
Methodology: browse random news websites every now and then on an old laptop and on an old mobile device.
Sample: yours truly.
Results: far too much cursing to publish as a HN comment, and frequent rage against the punk designers who ship huge JS payloads.
Conclusion: it still sucks. :-)
"In God we trust, all others must bring data." Best practices should be grounded in data rather than opinions whenever possible, especially when they're based on claims about users' cognitive load like in the NN/g recommendations.
> Per parent, it gobbles RAM on mobile devices, and this leads other tabs to close prematurely. It also turns older devices into helicopters when the fan kicks in.
I don't find that to be true with mobile devices. I much prefer having my links on mobile opening in a new tab, because a) mobile internet connection can be unreliable (and often a much bigger problem than lack of RAM), so I may not still have reception when trying to reload the original page, b) slow page loads makes browsing not as enjoyable since transitions take time, so I'd rather have everything in separate tabs and c) being on the move means I often put my phone down to do something else, so I don't necessarily remember every tab's browsing history.
Besides, mobile browsers have gotten a lot better at managing RAM and most have been able to optimize background tabs for a long time, so I think the RAM issue is way overrated.
> Besides the offender's unwarranted sense of entitlement (by keeping you around against your will), the main issue is that it breaks the back button. 15 years later, it's still an unwarranted sense of entitlement, and it's still breaking the back button.
I can see several reasons except for "unwarranted sense of entitlement" for this practice. It's all about reasonable expectations on the users' end: if a user can reasonably expect the website will behave some way, then not doing it this way can be detrimental to him. For example, many people expect "help" links (like the one next to the HN comment box) to not make you leave the page and rely on the "back" function to restore your painfully typed comment once you realize it does. They may be wrong in expecting this, but this seems like a perfectly rational safeguard against accidental data loss, so going against this could very well "increase the user's cognitive load".
As for the breaking the back button, my previous point was that the back button is not as important anymore, in part because a) a lot of things break the back button because dynamic content has made it much easier to do so and b) multi-tabbed browsing is now widespread and users may not be as confused by the fact each window/tab has its own browsing history anymore.
There are plenty of contradicting effects (precisely the reason why you and I can legitimately feel different about this issue) and the point of doing an actual study is to be able to measure them so we can compare them and say which trade-offs are worth it and which aren't.
tl;dr: your snark is unwelcome
Indeed they should. Except that here, the case is bloody obvious. "Show me the data that says the grass is green!" "Show me that evolution exists!" The onus of finding the data is on whoever thinks the statements are unreasonable.
Look… Opening links in new tabs does break the back button; no extra evidence is needed here beyond stating the obvious. The hardware back button on Android phones do lead to unexpected behavior; no extra evidence needed either. Having a save button in a word processor is needlessly forcing 40-year old IO limits onto end-users; no extra evidence needed here either.
In each case, what you can argue with and request data for, is this: whether end-users successfully cope with it or not; not whether it's broken to begin with.
And sadly, we humans are wonderfully adaptable. Including to pathetically poor user interfaces decisions such as the need to click a Start button in order to shut down a Win95 computer.
> Besides, mobile browsers have gotten a lot better at managing RAM and most have been able to optimize background tabs for a long time, so I think the RAM issue is way overrated.
Not everyone has a modern device. A whole bunch of iOS 5.1 devices (3rd-gen iPhones, 1st-gen iPads) and old Android devices are still in the wild.
> For example, many people expect "help" links (like the one next to the HN comment box) to not make you leave the page and rely on the "back" function to restore your painfully typed comment once you realize it does.
And that would qualify as a session that shouldn't be interrupted — i.e. it's a perfectly valid use-case, including for the OP.
(I, for one, would nonetheless suggest that a floating div on the same screen might be superior in that case, because the current window/tab would not lose its focus — a hopefully obvious fact.)
> a lot of things break the back button because dynamic content has made it much easier to do so
Assuredly so. But two wrongs don't make a right, so posting that as a reason to break it further is dubious at best.
Speaking personally, I hate those sites because they break my back button. I actually use the damned thing a lot, come to think of it. Especially on my 1st-gen iPad, since RAM-starved device can't seem hold more than a tab or two in memory when browsing sites loaded with JS.
> the point of doing an actual study is to be able to measure them so we can compare them and say which trade-offs are worth it and which aren't
Indeed. But chances are you wouldn't actually be measuring these things due to the huge bias involved in the measurement itself.
By simply asking a user if he prefers A or B, even qualitatively, you may open up a whole new world that he was unaware of until you asked; if so, the odds are good that — of course! — he'll prefer it rather than his more familiar daily routine, since the latter is in shambles due to widespread bad practices.
But hold… Your profile states that you're a data scientist, and I see you attended IEP at that. So you necessarily know this, and the — obvious — fact that a great many studies out there are inconclusive due to dubious methodology.
My original argument was simple:
1) opening links in new windows is said to be bad because a) it breaks the back button, and b) the back button is the most important one
2) the back button does not seem to be as important as it is now because of multi-tabbed browsing. Furthermore, since what matters is not not the back button itself, but how users expect the back button to perform, the fact this functionality has become unreliable could change the user's expectations (it changed mine)
3) therefore, the original argument may not be relevant anymore
> Indeed. But chances are you wouldn't actually be measuring these things due to the huge bias involved in the measurement itself.
The burden of proof should be proportional to the size of the claims you make. You can only be as confident as your data: if you believe there are biases in the measurement, then you should stay measured, too.
By the way, you say:
> And that would qualify as a session that shouldn't be interrupted — i.e. it's a perfectly valid use-case, including for the OP.
Who defines what should and shouldn't be interrupted? In the case of an article, I could argue that when I click a link in the middle of an article (like in The Verge's case), it's generally just because I'm curious about the link, kind of like I would read a footnote in a book, but ultimately I don't want to lose my pace and that would interrupt my reading "session". It is definitely not an indisputable claim, but it sure is a justifiable one (unlike, say, auto-loading audio advertisements) so The Verge isn't evil for doing so. If they had an A/B test and it showed it increased retention and that this is worth irritating some users, that's their decision to make.
Anyway, I feel this discussion has grown way out of proportion to the original claim and that we're just arguing for the sake of being right at that point. I'll willingly concede that you're right to say that as of now, forcing new tabs may place an unnecessary burden on users using older hardware.
Personally I side with the author, as I open just about everything with middle click, but I also have a lot of dumb users that rely on target _blank like it's the only thing preventing them from spiraling into a psychosis filled chasm of self doubt. The sheer number of people who have marveled at the idea of opening a page in a new tab when shown kind of makes me uncomfortable.
I really want to fix this, and have users understand their browser more than "it makes the googles".
There are people that use their computer day-in and day-out that don't know about alt-tab to switch between windows... The computer doesn't come with a manual, and no one ever showed them. Not everyone that gets plopped in front of a computer explores their new environment once they have a workflow down.
Alas, it's worth considering personal bias. Simply because you understand the fundamentals of the web and how to use modern technology doesn't mean it's the norm or standard (yet). Because someone doesn't know how to "middle click" does not make them stupid.
It takes a total of maybe 15 seconds to learn how to open a link in a tab. If that's too much effort for someone, then I seriously question what other small things that person has decided to just not learn throughout their life.
edit: I should note that by "users" I mean fully grown adults working with a web browser every day as their job, not Grandma.
For most of them it's not a matter of them not wanting to learn or being too lazy to learn. It's that they don't know that there is something they need to learn.
They don't know that it's an option. They don't know that it's possible. They don't even know that it is something they should consider.
It's simple to everyone on HN, but even simple things are not obvious to everyone that uses a computer or mobile device. One of our users just a few weeks ago did not know how to copy and paste text. Not didn't know the keyboard shortcuts…Did not know how to do it at all!
Instead, the user printed out the text I had requested him to copy/paste, scanned it in, and attached the image to a reply email.
You do what you know how to do.
Are you seriously arguing that in your opinion every single link should open a new tab automatically?
This said, personally I consider clicking on a link to an external resource/website to have a default behaviour of opening in a new tab. Failure of doing so counts as a usability bug to me. For same-site links then I agree, opening a new tab doesn't make sense.
There's nothing more frustrating than browsing with mouse only and being forced to go back and open a link with ctrl+click or middle click(also my mouse3 button is broken, but that's my problem)
It would be nice if browsers would indicate whether a link opened a new tab or not. That would also make me less hesitant to open a link to a help or documentation page while I'm in the middle of a transaction, as TFA mentions.
Update: found the paper - http://jeffhuang.com/Final_Branching_WSDM12.pdf
Here's the quote:
Users in the Chinese market nearly always branch [what the authors call opening links in new windows], a behavior forced by their search engines' default settings. Some people speculate [footnote for http://www.quora.com/China/Why-do-most-hyperlinks- on-Chinese-websites-open-a-new-window-tab] that this default started because Internet access is slower in China and so branching enables Web pages to load in the background. Others believe default branching is economically motivated as it allows a search engine to keep users on its site longer. However, a qualitative study of how Chinese users perceive branching versus backtracking would be interesting since their default action is opposite of that for the American and European users, who have been previously studied.
It may be the case that a world where 99% of websites doing Y is slightly better than the one where 99% of websites do X. However, both of those worlds are preferable to the world where 50% of the websites do X and 50% do Y. If you live in browser doesn't handle links the way you prefer there's a way to change that for yourself.
This is mainly for 2 reasons.
First, we expect our users to not necessarily be techy (in contrast to what Marco says "Most people know how to open your article’s outbound links in new tabs or windows, especially readers of a tech site").
Second, we want a consistent experience across all websites we open, and some of them forced us to open in new tabs. We usually embed news into an iframe, with a Theneeds' top bar for actions including vote, share and go back to the content stream. Unfortunately many news sites are currently preventing embedding (e.g., via the HTTP header X-Frame-Options: SAMEORIGIN). We decided to open at least them (then, as I said, all) as users were frustrated by loosing access to the content stream.
Non-'techy' users understand the back button and they are completely flummoxed when a target=_blank link breaks this behaviour for them. They often don't notice the tab bar and don't realise that something unusual has happened that requires something other than their learned use of 'back'.
You have to understand that you're going against the norm. If 80% of links were target=_blank then your argument would make sense but they are not so I struggle to understand your justification.
This is actually the result of long thoughts and discussions, and I totally was (and, in general, am) against target=_blank. So I'm just reporting things as they are and as we decided in the team, I don't want to create a religion war :)
Anyway, what made me change opinion is actually my behavior here on hn. I usually go through all the stream, select the news that I want to read and open them in new tabs. Then I start, tab by tab, to consume them. So, based on my experience, I wouldn't find too disturbing an open in new tab.
I hate it when either of these are overridden.
target="_blank" is a matter of convenience for me and I respect sites that use it - especially if the link is outbound.
I wish Apple would introduce a better UI for this.
What would be the input paradigm? Two finger tap?
I've stood over my mother's shoulder too many times when she closes a tab and says "where did that last window go?" to agree with the blanket statement of "target blank is Bad".
> I believe the former is justifiable, the latter isn’t
As he said in the article, it's justifiable if the user is in the middle of an important session that they probably don't want to navigate away from. For most people, reading a news article doesn't constitute that.
Temporary digressions like contextual help text should probably get loaded into a hidden div and use JS to display/hide rather than open in a new tab.
The user should be able to choose to open it in this window, a new tab, or a new window.
Browser allow you to open a normal link in new tab or new window, but unfortunately I don't know any web browser that allows the user to force opening a link in the current tab :(
It seems a million bad web "designers" don't realize that the page is for the reader's benefit (else they'll stop coming).
Forcing links to open in new windows has two main purposes:
1) To avoid disturbing an important session in progress for a temporary digression, such as FAQ/documentation links in the sidebar when you’re doing online banking.
I believe the former is justifiable
He gives a good reason for using target="_blank", and then...okay, what? Sounds like a good reason.
Even then, his second reason to not use target=_blank clearly sounds like a normative difference than a technical difference. He doesn't "like" the idea of keeping people on your site...so what? Don't use it, then. But you've clearly identified a positive ROI technique for keeping people on your site.
This post really confuses me.
But one that doesn't (in his opinion, explicitly stated shortly after -- and also, for what it's worth, in mine) apply to the particular behaviour he was criticizing.
> But you've clearly identified a positive ROI technique for keeping people on your site.
But also one that (in his opinion, and for what it's worth also mine) is likely to annoy and/or confuse users, which means two things.
1. If you happen to care about users' welfare as well as about your "positive ROI" -- in other words, if you see them as people rather than as tools to be manipulated in a way that brings you the most benefit -- then their annoyance and/or confusion is a reason not to use the technique. (It might be outweighed by that "positive ROI", but it's a reason.)
2. Even if you do see your users only as tools for increasing your profits or mindshare or whatever, annoying and/or confusing them may have bad long-term consequences. They may stay on your site longer right now, as you intend -- but they may also be that bit more likely to abandon you for some other site that doesn't annoy or confuse them so much. So by using this technique you might be taking short-term gains at long-term cost.
(It seems to me that while #2 is a bit subtle and might well be too weak an effect to matter much, #1 is really obvious. I am confused at your professed confusion.)
Since I use tree-style tabs, nesting is effectively my navigation stack - except that it's a navigation tree, which also avoids the problem whereby you lose your "forward" stack if you go back and choose a different path.
And for tabs that I want to return to after closing, I use undo tab close - with TabMixPlus, I have the last 10 closed tabs available for reopening.
The combination of TabMixPlus and (especially) TreeStyleTabs are the reason I've never been able to take Chrome seriously.
Looking at you, LinkedIn.
Readers of a technical site? Maybe.
Average people? Not a chance.
This of course is an entirely separate topic than the point you are making (which I agree with) but it's a similar issue with not being able to understand "average" or "typical" or what we sometimes call "normals" (or is often called "people in fly over country").
I was on my Mom's mac and a window popped up for her to do the a software update. I said "oh you have to do that" (had security updates) and she said "I don't need any new software" she had no clue.
I probably command-click 99% of links. How often do I, as a user, want to leave the current page and enter an entirely new context, within the same browser tab? Almost never.
The problem is that sadly, closing a tab is often easier in practice than using the "back" functionality:
- many websites are poorly coded and break the "back" functionality, making it (sadly) unreliable. On pages that load content dynamically, results are not always predictable either
- my left hand is already positioned in such a way that hitting cmd/ctrl + w is trivial, whereas going back requires reaching all the way to the backspace button/the mouse/doing a multi-finger gesture on the trackpad
- if you had to submit content to get to the current page, usually going back will trigger a "confirm form resubmission" warning
- on mobile devices, the "back" functionality is not very prominently displayed. On Chrome, you have to click the "more" icon to access it
In addition, manually opening in a new tab (which requires right-clicking, middle-clicking, or ctrl/cmd + click) is not always as trivial as people imply:
- people who are using a trackpad do not have a middle button
- right-clicking is has not been part of Apple's design for a long time. You can perform them using cmd + click or using two fingers on the trackpad (I believe it is disabled by default), but it's not as convenient
- On a MacBook, the modifier keys (fn/control/option/command) are all placed next to each other and it's not always obvious which one does what. It's easy to get confused or to accidentally hit the wrong one. I've personally done option + click by mistake countless times, which opens a prompt to save the link, and it's always pretty frustrating
- the right-click equivalent on touch screens (long press) is a bit clunky
And this is coming from a tech-savvy user who actually knows about these options -- you'd be surprised at how many people don't. Of course, having the ability to make the decision is important for power users, but I can't help but wonder if for less sophisticated users the practice is not so bad after all. The usability studies I could find are pretty dated and I would not be surprised that usage patterns have changed.
I agree with the post author. Please let me decide when to open a new window. This is further complicated that links can be configured to do just about anything with JS. Nothing more frustrating than not knowing what a seemingly inconsequential "help" link in a checkout process will do. Usually it pops open a new window or reveals a hidden div, but sometimes it navigates away and blows away the entire form you've filled out. Honestly the hyperlink as it stands now is a very poor UI construct due to rampant abuse.
My comment may have given the wrong impression -- I am not arguing that forcing links in new windows is a good thing, simply that it is not the anti-pattern people make it to be. In some cases like an app where accidentally leaving the page may lead to data loss or to a form resubmission, I actually think it's an acceptable trade-off and not an awful choice at all. I do agree with the author that in The Verge's case it isn't.
My comment was just based on the (totally subjective, of course) observation that to me that I tend to use a "open/close tabs" flow these days much more than "forward/backward in history", and that the "back" functionality seems less important than it used to be a few years ago because of changes in the way websites are designed.
Issues of choice aside (which seem to be your main grief; I have nothing to argue against it), the usability studies that condemn the practice tend use the fact that it disrupts the "back" functionality as one of their main arguments. My point being: if this functionality is not as important (as is the case for me), maybe this practice isn't so bad after all?
No, it is disabled by default, I go through a few Macs and turning on right click (and inverting that 'natural scroll') is the first thing I do.
Etsy employees were so sure that customers would love having blank/multi-windows, because if you shop on Etsy a lot, how else would you keep track of interesting things while moving down the list?
According to slide 20, 70 percent more people in the testing group gave up and left the site after getting a new tab.
A link in the middle of a sentence interrupts any mental session in progress. The 7th word in his post is a link...does he really think that anyone intends to click that click and never return to his site? To at least finish the sentence?
I guarantee that if he sat and watched 100 of his readers click that link, all 100 would use a contextual menu (e.g. right click) or chord (Ctrl-click) to open that link in a new window.
I could understand the argument against target=_blank back in the good ol' days of IE6 on XP, when browsers were not tabbed and OS's were not good at managing tons of windows. Back then creating new windows all over the place was annoying.
Those days are gone. With tabs and window management UI (like Expose), it is now no trouble at all for anyone to manage dozens of open web sessions at once. Adding one more is far more lightweight than whisking your readers away suddenly in the middle of a sentence.
I'm not sure my Mom, when browsing, knows how to decide when opening in a new window is important, much less how to do it.
It's also kinda nice when you're using an iframe, and you don't want the link to be followed inside a small subsection of the viewport.
I totally agree that it gets abused, but it does (at least seem to) have some valid uses.
NOTE: This was a not-for-profit, so ROI was not a factor in the decision, only usability with possibly a little liability protection thrown in as an added bonus.
In a few cases, I have edits open in the same tab as a popup, but in a number of instances that is not possible for pages with a lot of functionality/fields.
An example of this can be found in a django admin site where a new modal is launched to enter a foreign key relationship, this would be unwieldy & distracting if it were to open in a new tab, taking the user away from information that may help them in making a choice and disrupting their flow.
When it's a blog or a news site or anything else, the link should just be a link.
Anyone want to build this Chrome add-on for me?