Links Should Open in the Same Window

The best practice is to leave the default link behavior alone

Michael Schofield
Jul 10, 2017 · 7 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Link, chain, chain-mail, knight. Get it? Unsplash photo by Henry Hustava
  • users find new tabs or windows convenient

Browsers bake in consistency

Nielsen Norman Group write that “links that don’t behave as expected undermine users’ understanding of their own system,” wherein unexpected external linking is particularly hostile.

Users spend most of their time on other websites.

Design conventions are useful. The menu bar isn’t at the top of the website because that’s the most natural place for it; it’s at the top because that is where every other website puts it.

Conventions give users control

Vitaly Friedman summarizes a bunch of advice from usability-research powerhouses in this:

[A] user-friendly and effective user interface places users in control of the application they are using. Users need to be able to rely on the consistency of the user interface and know that they won’t be distracted or disrupted during the interaction.

And interaction designer and animator Rachel Nabors makes the case that

Users … may be search-navigators or link-clickers, but they all have additional mental systems in place that keep them aware of where they are on the site map. That is, if you put the proper markers in place. Without proper beacons to home in on, users will quickly become disoriented.

See, a link is a promise

This is all to stress the point that violating conventions, such as the default behaviors of web browsers, is a dangerous play. The default behavior of hyperlinks is that they open within the same page.

The absolute worst is when some links are target=_blank and others aren’t, all on the same website, usually because of multiple authors and lack of style guidelines. … I want to think about your content, not get confused and irritated by your inconsistent linking behaviour!

Inconvenience is trumped by interaction cost

Ask yourself: is the inconvenience of default behavior greater than the interaction cost?

  • +1 — the user begins to read,
  • +1 — the user scrolls,
  • +1 — the user clicks a link …
  • +1 — the user clicks to the previous tab to continue reading …
  • +1 — the user back-buttons their way to the content
  • +1 — the user command-clicks to open that same link in a new tab, for later
  • +1 — locate the tab from the card-stack,
  • +1 — tap the card to select it,
  • +3 — repeat the above steps to return to the content.

Alternative to default browser behavior may reduce choice

Chris Coyier shows how to use target attributes in hyperlinks to force link behavior, but gives you no less than six reasons why you shouldn’t. Consider this: deciding that such-and-such link should open in a new window ultimately reduces the number of navigation options available to the user.

Exit intent

What is even more nefarious than poor content strategy is this notion that we don’t want users to leave our website.

New windows or tabs may be less accessible

Pop-ups and new windows have certain accessibility issues which can cause confusion for users relying on screen readers to navigate the website. WebAIM says:

Newer screen readers alert the user when a link opens a new window, though only after the user clicks on the link. Older screen readers do not alert the user at all. Sighted users can see the new window open, but users with cognitive disabilities may have difficulty interpreting what just happened.

Compatibility with WCAG 2.0 involves an “Understanding Guideline” which suggests that the website should “provide a warning before automatically opening a new window or tab.” Here is the technique. It’s not in wide use.


Exceptions to the rule

Normally, it is a good idea to use target=_blank when opening the link will otherwise interrupt an ongoing process:

  • the user is watching video or listening to audio

Metric

High-level practical design thinking by Michael Schofield

Michael Schofield

Written by

User Experience Development Lead @WhereByUs. 🎙 Metric: the User Experience Design Podcast (metricpodcast.com).

Metric

Metric

High-level practical design thinking by Michael Schofield

Michael Schofield

Written by

User Experience Development Lead @WhereByUs. 🎙 Metric: the User Experience Design Podcast (metricpodcast.com).

Metric

Metric

High-level practical design thinking by Michael Schofield

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store