A bad case of popupitis

Did you know that you can no longer use popups, or dialog boxes, or modal error messages, or anything else that’s not just your program or web page’s main window?

One part of the way I pay for cat food and computers is by helping people who are not exactly the savviest and most experienced internet users find their way out of the twisty maze they’ve trapped themselves in. Think mpt‘s internet cafe users, only moreso. I’ve been supporting end users since the days when the good machines had two floppy drives, so you didn’t have to take the program disk out to save data, so I know that users don’t exactly understand that every word in an error message may well have meaning, even if it doesn’t have meaning to them. Still, I’ve been noticing for a while now that verbal reports of errors are getting much worse: instead of “it said something about error six hundred something, something out of something” they are more likely to be “it popped up an error and then it didn’t work.” Finally the other day I got to see the source of those messages in action, looking over someone’s shoulder while they did what they ordinarily do, not what they do when you are watching. “See, I do this, and [error dialog pops up, before I can read the first word BAM! there’s a click on the close box and it’s gone] then it doesn’t work. See? [click, dialog, BAM!] Doesn’t work. [click, dialog, BAM!].”

Your error message, whether it is explaining to the end user what went wrong and how to fix it, or offering something which can be looked up, or giving debugging information that will help a technician fix the problem, is a popup ad. They use Internet Explorer, they don’t have a popup blocker, but they know how to deal with anything, anything, that pops up over their window. BAM! It’s closed, without ever having looked at a single word.

The version of Internet Explorer in Windows XP Service Pack 2 (which bloody well better get a version number, because that description is a pain) has a modeless UI Information Band that appears between the toolbars and the content of a web page. They apparently built that to avoid the ActiveX automatic install hell, where a page tries to install an ActiveX control, you say no, it pops up a Javascript alert saying “Install it, damn you!” and when you dismiss that it tries to install the control, you say no, it pops up…. However, they’re using it for more than just that, for situations where there’s no chance of getting into modal deadlock. Microsoft pays a lot of people to watch other people clicking stuff, and they are trying to get away from popping up dialogs. That’s useful information for your programs, and especially your web pages.

The other interesting thing I saw this week was the baffling results of named popup windows. When you call Javascript’s window.open, you can pass in a name for the window, which you can later use to target things to that window, or control it. That’s commonly done with weblog comments popup windows: they are mostly named “comments.” I’ve railed against that annoying misfeature time and again, because I quite often open one weblog’s comments on one entry, start a comment, try to copy something from the comments on another entry to quote it, but it loads over the top of my partly done comment, then I wander off to another weblog entirely, try to read the comments on one of their entries, only to have them load over the top of the popup I still had open with my second attempt at a comment.

But this time, there wasn’t any edge case power user reading too many blogs at once, just a ten year old boy trying to print out a Fathers’ Day card. He had apparently clicked one thumbnail, which popped up the full size, ready to print version in a window probably named “screwyoukid”, didn’t like it, so he clicked in the visible part of the main window to bring it back up, and clicked another thumbnail, which completely invisibly loaded in the existing “screwyoukid” window in the background. By the time he asked for help, because “it only worked once and then it broke!” he was headed rapidly toward frustrated tears. I sure hope his dad likes the card.

If you absolutely have to open a popup (you generally don’t, when you think you do, and your users would rather use the back button which they understand, not the taskbar which they don’t get at all), and you feel like you really have to name it, and name every one you open the same thing, the least you can do is actually bring the damn thing to the front when you load something in it.


Comment by mpt #
2004-06-19 17:06:50

A tiny part of the problem is that many alerts on MS Windows have close boxes, making it easier not to read them. But only a tiny part. More generally, the more experienced a computer user becomes, the less likely they are to put up with interruptions at all. Popup advertising has just accelerated the general trend.

2001-07-08: Just as Web users hate popup windows, computer users in general hate alert boxes.

2001-08-22: As time goes on, the number of confirmation alerts which are part of the design for any GUI application should approach zero.

2002-02-08: Alerts don’t work.

2002-03-25: Alerts don’t work.

Comment by nick #
2004-06-23 15:25:51

I’ve just been calling the new Explorer ”IE v.XPSP2” not much less convoluted than ”The version of Internet Explorer in Windows XP Service Pack 2” but it’s a heck of a lot less typing…

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