If you spend any time looking around the web, the chances are you will have come across the latest craze that’s pretty much guaranteed to annoy – or at the very least confuse website visitors: Pop up light boxes, also known as interstitials.
You arrive on a web page and suddenly the screen goes dark and a form appears, blocking out the content of the page.
Usually they invite you to sign up to the site’s newsletter, like it on Facebook, create an account or worst of all, it’s an advert.
Many allow you to cancel the pop up and view the content behind it but some don’t.
Here you have a choice: Do what they want or go somewhere else.
If I’m at a desktop PC or a laptop, my instinctive reaction is to shut them down without even reading them.
But on a phone the effect is often to render the site completely useless.
Why are pop-up light boxes bad?
Pop-ups of any kind essentially take over your computer and stop you from what you are trying to do.
As if this is not enough, they then demand that you do what the website owner wants you to do before you can carry on with what you came to do.
In a world where increasingly a good website is one that allows visitors to do what they want to do quickly and easily, then twisting arms to get newsletter sign ups, Facebook likes or even to draw attention to your latest products is just plain rude.
But in the end it’s never, ever a good idea to put things in the way of what people want to do on your website.
A history of pop-ups
Everyone who works in website usability knows pop ups either annoy or confuse web users. Why? Because we’ve been here before.
Ten years ago the web was in the midst of the first pop-up war, when it was almost impossible to get around on the web without multiple adverts appearing in pop-up windows all over the place.
Mainly, they succeeded in annoying web users, with a 2004 study showing that pop-ups were the most hated advertising technique on the web.
It wasn’t long before pop-up blockers – software that stopped pop-ups from appearing – became very popular.
Research showed that website visitors didn’t just dislike them, they actively hated them, and often transferred that hate not only to the advertiser responsible, but also to the site that exposed them to the advert.
In the end the pop-up blockers won and the problem went away. People were once again able to browse the web in peace.
But now pop-ups are back. Enter the pop-up light box, also known as the modal overlay.
Pop-up light boxes get around the blockers by appearing inside the page.
And it’s only going to get worse.
Why do people use pop-up light boxes?
Just about everyone seems to agree that pop-ups of any kind, let alone pop-up light boxes, are very annoying and frustrating indeed, so why does anyone use them?
While researching this article I came across a blog post from a web designer who admits to hating pop-up light boxes, yet still has one on her website!
The answer lies in the obsession with numbers.
In our business we come across a lot of people who think like this: They constantly count their Twitter followers, their Facebook likes and the number of newsletter subscribers they have, as if it’s a badge of honour.
It’s all about quantity, not quality, and there’s no consideration for the fact that those things in themselves do not have any value.
People who advocate pop-up light boxes, especially to get website visitors to subscribe to their newsletter, will claim they work in vastly increasing newsletter sign ups and apparently they do.
But usability research shows why that might be – that website visitors sign up because they think they have to in order to make the pop-up go away. So they end up subscribing to a newsletter they don’t even want.
Andy Beaumont, technical director at digital advertising agency Albion London, has seen people struggle with them in website user testing.
He says: “Analytics will tell you that you got more “conversions”. Analytics will show you rising graphs and bigger numbers. You will show these to your boss or your client. They will falsely conclude that people love these modal overlays.
“I have tested this design pattern with real people, and a significant portion of them believe that they must do what the box is begging them for in order to close the overlay.
“These people (remember, they’re people, not “conversions”), are signing up to a newsletter they don’t want. They’re then going to be irritated by it for several months until they work out how to unsubscribe from it.”
Why you shouldn’t use pop up light boxes
Our 2004 study that named pop-ups the most hated advertising technique on the web also listed the reasons why they provoked such a negative reaction.
Those tested especially did not like pop-ups because they cover what you are trying to see and try to trick you into clicking on them. The same things apply to the new breed of pop-up light boxes.
Everybody who builds websites knows that people find them annoying.
Yet some of the worst offenders are people who should know better, but can’t help themselves.
The mentality seems to be ‘I know it’s bad and I hate it too, but look at the conversions’.
And then of course there’s the ‘everybody else is doing it’ philosophy – an approach that can only lead to disaster. After all, isn’t that how we ended up with a Credit Crunch?
Some people have tried to minimise the intrusion by making the pop up appear after a few seconds, and only allowing it to appear once.
But for every one site trying to limit the annoyance, at least ten will allow it to appear on every page, even to visitors who have subscribed to the website’s newsletter, liked its Facebook page or whatever else they are being forced to do.
That makes the whole experience even more frustrating, as you have done as you were asked, but every page you visit the damned light box keeps appearing.
So if you are tempted to use one of these on your website – or you already have them – ask yourself a few questions:
- How do you feel about pop-ups when you come across them on a website?
- If you find them frustrating do you not think your website visitors will too?
- Is it worth annoying the majority of your website visitors for the sake of a few more newsletter sign-ups, Twitter followers or Facebook likes?
If your efforts to get more subscribers are not working, then look at your newsletter itself and how you are promoting it. Don’t try and twist people’s arms into subscribing for something they don’t want.
Do you use pop-up lightboxes? If so, why? Do you actually like them? Have your say below.
And feel free to subscribe to our newsletter for more advice articles on how to make your website as good as it can be – and a valuable resource for your business. We will never share your information and we won’t twist your arm to sign up.
More information on pop-up light boxes
Nielsen Norman Group: The Most Hated Advertising Techniques
Digivate: 3 BIG Dangers of Pop-Up Ads and Forms
More Website Sins
Things to avoid saying and doing on your business website.
- Never say ‘Click Here’
- Don’t use ‘Under Construction’ pages
- Why you don’t need an FAQ page
- Why pop-up light boxes are a bad idea