A close up image depicting 10 tabs open on an internet browser
Original Content by Liam Ramsey

The “New Tab” Conundrum

Ty Fujimura
Jul 12, 2019 · 5 min read

Almost every time we build a new site at my web design firm, Cantilever, the client will make a request that looks like this:

This page links out to an article on a different site. Can we make that open in a new tab, so we don’t lose visitors?

This is a totally reasonable thought: Turn our site into the hub from which the user will navigate different linked content. When they close that content, they’re back on our site, ready to read more.

At Cantilever we prefer to answer client requests with a firm “yes” — or at least, a qualified one. But this is one small detail of “User Experience” (UX) design where we do tend to gently push back. We make the case for allowing links to open in the same window. The reasons tell us a good deal about the changing nature of the web, and our philosophy of working within it.

Fundamentally, we believe that good UX means…

  • Allowing the browser to work as it naturally does
  • Giving the user choices over how they experience a site
  • Doing things the way the user will expect

How does the New Tab Method run afoul of these principles?

Allowing the browser to work as it naturally does

When you force a link to open in a new tab, the user can no longer use the browser’s native “back” functionality to return to your site. They must find the original tab and click that instead.

(No, this is NOT how our Blog link usually works!)

While it’s tempting to believe that the presence of your site in a tab bar will make it easy for them to come back, consider:

  • Look up at your tab bar. How many tabs are there? What are the odds you actually return to one of those pages, on purpose? Most of the time, you’re going to close them all down when you end up with too many.
  • Users can easily lose track of which new tab had to do with which original webpage. Visually impaired users will have an especially hard time doing this. When you rely on the browser’s native “back” functionality, the connection is obvious and intuitive.
  • Many users don’t understand how tabs work. To them, the browser shows one webpage at a time. These users have a much better shot of understanding the “back/forward” paradigm than tabs.

These reasons are even more pronounced for mobile traffic (which is the majority of traffic on most of our websites). The user interface (UI) for navigating tabs in mobile is incredibly limited, and requires extra taps compared to using tabs on a desktop device. It’s possible that someone could decide to go back to your site this way, but much more likely that without being able to tap “back”, they’ll just move on.

On mobile, opening a link in a new tab makes it exceedingly unlikely the user will return.

Just this reason alone is enough to push us away.

Giving the user choices over how they experience a site

When you make a normal link, the user can choose to either open it in a new tab (with right-click, voice, force touch, or whatever UI their device provides), or to open it in the same tab. When you force a new tab, the user never gets to make that choice.

Our philosophy at Cantilever is “Digital Hospitality.” Giving your guests choices is good hospitality! If you can offer both tea and coffee, why not let them decide? Even if them picking coffee is slightly better for you, the fact that you offered a choice will benefit you more in the long run.

Doing things the way the user will expect

Digital Hospitality also means accommodating users’ prior expectations. While every now and then it’s worthwhile to be subversive in pursuit of a creative concept (we at Cantilever did so for Conversations with Tyler), in general, users will be happiest if not surprised.

The vast majority of links on the web open in the same tab, so when you choose to force some to behave differently, you risk surprising the user and making them stop to assess what just happened. We want them to have a fluid, intuitive experience navigating our sites — even when they’re on their way out.

However wonderful the design and content of your new Cantilever site (and it will be wonderful 😇)…

Users will leave your website. When they decide to, our job is to make them want to come back.

You can make that experience simpler and cleaner by submitting to the browser’s default behavior. The New Tab Method is like a first date that goes on longer than the user wanted. Why is your site hanging out in their tab bar until the user spells out “I’m done?” Even if the date went well, the awkward parting leaves the wrong impression.

… and more

While UX is the primary driver of our approach, there are other factors to consider as well:

  • The New Tab Method can cause issues for Time on Site and Session Duration metrics.
  • Some users don’t have tabs on, or use a browser without tab support.
  • The New Tab Method can run afoul of popup blockers in some fringe situations.

What does it mean?

Building a website involves thousands of small and large decisions. This is just a tiny one, but it aptly illustrates a philosophical shift happening in the industry. With the latest browser technologies like HTML5, ES6 Javascript, CSS Grid, and HTTP/2, more and more of the tricks professionals once relied upon to optimize a site experience are now counterproductive.

Ten years ago, browsers were poor, and user experience varied greatly between different systems. This left developers in the position of working against the browser to implement the experience they wanted to provide.

Because technology has improved and standards have codified, today it is important to work with the browser instead. Let the browser behave naturally. Feed it semantic HTML5 markup, elegant CSS, and clean vanilla Javascript, and let it do the rest. At Cantilever we have been discovering this philosophy for ourselves over the past few years, and the more we embrace it, the better our sites become.

Edited by Rebecca Testrake
Studio Manager & Magical Instigator at Cantilever


Cantilever makes Warm, Welcoming Websites — the new WWW.


Reflections on work, technology, productivity, and equity from Cantilever, a leading web design consultancy. Visit us at https://cantilever.co

Ty Fujimura

Written by

CEO @ Cantilever. We make warm, welcoming websites – the new WWW. 👉 https://cantilever.co


Reflections on work, technology, productivity, and equity from Cantilever, a leading web design consultancy. Visit us at https://cantilever.co