Newsletter pop-ups, enough is enough

You can’t read news articles in peace anymore. Nowadays, one in two websites is going to throw a newsletter sign-up module at you before you even start reading the first paragraph— want access to this article that you find so interesting? Sign up here first, just a matter of seconds! If you are on mobile, you are likely to tap on the wrong spot, and be redirected somewhere else, and it’s so much fun…

Marketing experts are getting creative at finding new ways of luring us into giving away our email addresses. The strategies they experiment with are just short of grotesque, but we are supposed to take all them as normal. Low-quality content with sensational titles to bait users to click, content split into multiple pages to get more exposure on search engines, and lots of advertising that makes web pages incredibly heavy can make surfing the Internet a painful experience. Now we are witnessing a comeback of pop-ups in the form of modal overlays that cannot be blocked by browsers. It looks like we are back to the old days, when you had to skip that obnoxious splash screen created by the occasional designer in order to access some content. The real-world equivalent would be someone stopping right in front of you while you are walking down the street — every time you go out. How would that feel?

A few months ago I wrote an article called the tyranny of testing over design. One of the points I made is that design should not be driven by impersonal, aseptic statistics, when well-founded best practices and simple common sense lead in the opposite direction. First and foremost, design should be friendly to humans, and design decisions should be based on what we already know about them. We have plenty of evidence-based research data on what people like, and what they find intuitive and helpful. We also know what they find annoying, time-consuming, and unnecessarily distracting. It’s surprising that in 2016 there’s still a need to quote out loud a famous article by Jakob Nielsen, a well-known authority in web usability, about the Top 10 mistakes in web design (check point 7).

This sudden rush into anti-usability patterns, such as newsletter or survey pop-ups, is likely more of a marketing fad than an evidence-based, solidly proven strategy. The statistics showing an increase in conversion don’t take into account the hidden costs (for more on this, check the article by Meyer/Flaherty mentioned in the recommended links below). And even if begging for the user’s attention was supported by numbers, it would still be against common sense, and the respect that we owe to other people. We can’t all ignore what an appropriate behaviour is, and turn into ill-mannered content creators, just because the numbers say that it’s OK to do so. You don’t bombard people with emails. You don’t ask people to sign contracts that are against their own interest. You don’t block people in the street to advertise your product. You don’t throw pop-ups in your reader’s face.

The web is a formidable repository of shared knowledge. We can’t succumb to those who believe that the Internet should be dominated by the rules of marketing. We can’t accept to have people who lack creative thinking as team leaders and decision-makers. Designers, developers and content creators should not allow the work that they do to be polluted by dark patterns, poor taste, and stupid cookie consent banners that bureaucrats with no understanding of the real world have imposed on us.

I’d like to end this with a great discovery that I made today. It’s an article published in 2004 on DZ Net. I am not going to include a link, though, just a screenshot. At least I will spare you their brand new survey pop-up. As you can see, these guys are the best — they really managed to outdo themselves!

The next time that you are annoyed by some sort of pop-up, leave the site immediately, if it’s not too much of a sacrifice, or try to be creative:


Follow me on Facebook or Twitter.


Update: an answer to the most common objections

I am happy to see many reactions to this article. Most comments resonate positively with it, but it definitely got on some people’s nerves, while some other are doubtful. Let’s take the time to address two of the most valid objections that were raised.

“But pop-ups do work…”

Some pointed out that there’s actually some solid evidence, based on real data, proving that opt-in pop-ups do increase conversion significantly, up to 10 times. I thank them for providing the links, because I reckon that web metrics can only bring more value to this discussion. And my answer is, did these profit maximisation-enthusiasts also measure how many people are finding their pop-ups frustrating? Are they also concerned about those people who would never subscribe anyway, but get harassed by their pop-ups? Or they are only concerned about increasing their profit? Because I am being told that my article is naive, and read comments such as this: “I’ve heard many complaints but the data speaks for itself — They work!”. I found some of them to be the perfect expression of cynicism and ignorance; this one for example: “The Internet is dominated by the rules of making money. […] As UX professionals we need to design for site goals, if we can line that up with maximum enjoyment for everyone, we will, but if 5% don’t visit our site because of the popup bit 5% do sign up and enter our funnel, we have a duty to keep doing that.” Well, maybe they are happy with their lives being dominated by profit optimisation as a key metric for success, but my life and professional goals point in other directions. I am very keen on providing people with great quality content, and using technology to empower them, without creating friction in their lives. And if we were to take decisions based on what data say, I am sure that if I were to start stopping people in the street and ask them for money, with a knife in my hand, I would get a significant increase in my monthly conversions.

As Kate Meyer and Kim Flaherty put it: “These kinds of tactics are often embraced and accepted based on better conversion performance in A/B tests. However, there’s a big tradeoff that comes with being needy and annoying — the degradation of your relationship with your users”.

The article lacks substance, what are the alternatives?

If anybody has valid alternatives to recommend, I’d be more than happy to host them here, rather than hearing them complain that the article does not offer practical take-aways. Some of the alternatives are pretty obvious: for example a newsletter sign-up at the bottom of the article, without any overlay, or one on top of the page.

Newsletter subscription from web-crunch.com. Easy to spot, but it won’t jump on readers’ face.

And here is another possible solution:

Yes But Why: “At least I am not a mid-screen pop-up”. Not invasive, funny, and the tone of voice is friendly. Unfortunately, a full screen pop-up is still thrown up at you when reading the articles. They guys don’t have enough visibility yet?

If you really want to get more attention, a subtle motion at the edge of the screen is likely to get noticed, as humans notice peripheral movement very easily. It’s still a distraction and I wouldn’t recommend it, but at least it doesn’t prevent people from reading the article, and it doesn’t require a mouse click to be dismissed. Similarly, one reader has proposed an “e-mail sign-up field inline with the content, in between paragraphs”. Not the most elegant design choice, I would say, but certainly more subtle and respectful than the modal monster.

But do I really have to provide alternatives? The point of the article is, designers should consider the impact of their choices on people’s lives, no matter how loud the gurus of statistics shout out at them.

Recommended links on this topic

Stop it! (by Andy Leverenz)
Andy Leverenz wrote a great article about design habits that are supposed to drive engagement, but instead, cause significant annoyance and distraction to the users. Very succinct and easy to go thorough, recommended! 
“A website that produces content at a rapid rate needs to monetize somehow to stay in operation. I think everyone understands this concept, but the way bloggers are going about it this day and age is pretty ridiculous. So many methods of utter bullshit are thrown at you like garbage.”
Don’t miss the insightful comment left by Phil T Tipp.

Needy Design Patterns: Please-Don’t-Go Popups & Get-Back-to-Me Tabs (by Kate Meyer and Kim Flaherty)
An article published a few days ago (May 2016) on the Nielsen Norman Group website. As you may expect, it deals with this topic in a very solid but measured way, with data at hand, and the authority that you’d expect from the editors of a NNG article. I like the definition in the title, and the distinction between a “professional, confident website” and a needy one. 
“Prioritizing conversions or short-term metrics leads designers to pressure people into doing things they don’t actually want to do and can easily cross the ethical boundaries towards dark patterns. It’s time to reassess priorities and long-term goals: you may be getting a few extra clicks now, but in the long run you’re losing your users’ trust and respect. Nobody likes a needy website.”

The conversion rate illusion of modal newsletter forms (by Anthony, UX Movement)
“A high conversion rate is a site’s dream but not at the cost of task disruption, engagement loss and user backlash. It’s easy to overlook the downsides to modal window newsletter forms if all you focus on is conversion rate.”

Dark patterns in action (by Luca Benazzi)
A short article that I dedicated to dark patterns.