Why Popups Are Ruining the User Experience

Popups are the most hated feature of websites. This has consistently been the case for at least a decade now, so the question is - can we turn it around? Can you implement a popup that won't hurt the user experience? The answer is both yes and no. The animosity towards popups is deeply engraved in people's minds. However, certain design and feature choices can help you salvage some of their usability.

Article by Dawid Zimny
I am particularly interested in web analytics. Knowing the way your visitors browse your website will help you improve their browsing experience and is crucial for converting them into clients.

Actually, let’s reiterate the first sentence of this article.

People don’t hate popups – they hate how popups are executed.

Most of them interrupt the user journey, appear at the wrong time and distract the visitors.

Third-party services have made it incredibly easy to create a popup, which led to more and more inexperienced people using them on websites. They’ve accustomed visitors to bad popup experiences. It has been going on for years and it’s hard to turn it around.

It’s become a habit for the visitors to dismiss intrusive popups. And quite frankly, you can’t blame them.

But before we tell you why this happens and how to make the most out of your popups, we’ll need a little bit of context.

Popup types

We can single out four general popup characteristics:

  1. Modal – one of the culprits of the animosity towards popups. Modal popups are ones that block the user from interacting with the content of the website until he dismisses the popup.
  2. Nonmodal
  3. Lightbox – popups that don’t use dimmed background, meaning the content appears “as is” to the visitor, even though there is an overlay on their screen.
  4. Dimmed – dimmed popups disrupt the visual appearance of the website but not only displaying an overlay but also “hiding” the body of the site.

If you think about some of the popups you’ve encountered recently, you’ll find out that modal and dimmed ones were the most annoying. Unfortunately, they aren’t necessarily losing popularity among website owners and designers.

Common popup issues

When researching the examples for this article, queries like “block popups”, “popup blocker chrome” or “allow popups” were some of the most popular ones. They illustrate the problem perfectly.

People search for ways to disable popups all the time. Alternatively, they want to enable them again, which means something prompted them to block popups in the first place.

Intrusive nature

The idea of popups is intrusive enough. If you consider they can be modal and dimmed on top of that, it becomes unbearable.

Modal cookie consent popup used on Mashable's website.
Mashable doesn’t have a good track record of using popups. Currently, they use a slightly dimmed and modal cookie consent popup.

It’s almost as if you’ve opened a new tab in the visitor’s browser without their consent. The path to close a popup is slightly shorter, but the concept is virtually the same. You’ve interrupted their interaction with your website.

Considering an average session duration on websites is between one and three minutes, the traditional popup display is unacceptable. You’re definitely familiar with retail employees approaching you at the store.

They have good intentions (and your popup might too), but more often than not it’s an interruption to which you reply “no, thanks”.

Of course, there are exceptions. One of our clients has an average session duration of over 7 minutes in 2019 so far. This gives them much more time to show a popup at a reasonable time. But for most websites, full-blown overlays are not only intrusive, but it’s almost never a good time to show them.

Displaying a popup before an interaction

This issue is more common than you might think. Many websites display a popup when the visitor has just visited the website – sometimes even asking for personal details already.

Mashable using a Chrome notifications popups before users have the chance to interact with the site.
To make things even worse, right after accepting the cookies Mashable asked us if we want to receive notifications in our browser. Two strikes in quick succession.

They didn’t even get time to get to know your business. Whether you’re asking them to sign up to a newsletter or offering a discount, 30 seconds in they haven’t consumed any content yet nor had the ability to browse your store. That popup is not only deemed to fail, it will also annoy the visitor.

They feel like advertisements

Here at Nerd Cow, we’re advocates for the content-first approach. Writing for the Web is much different from traditional marketing. Most popups are created by marketing teams struggling to truly understand the difference.

Your visitors can’t feel like your selling to them, rather than solving their problems. Especially if it’s an unwanted interaction, such as an intrusive popup.

Nowadays people understand that an email offer isn’t a really a “free” gift. It doesn’t mean they’re not willing to “pay”, though. But if the first thing they see on your website requires payment and it isn’t something they wanted, you can imagine how they’ll feel.

Which popups should you avoid?

Here’s a list of the worst popup practices:

  • modal, dimmed, and the combination of the two
  • popups interrupting user journey, i.e. right after logging in or before any interaction
  • forcing medium change, i.e. asking the visitor to download your app rather than showcasing its advantages as a better alternative
  • showing multiple popups in quick succession

Best popup practices

Popups aren’t doomed just yet. It will take a collective effort of web agencies and website managers to revert the damage that has been done over the years, but good popups can still deliver results.

And it’s easier than you may think:

  • Keep them relevant – websites were always about the user experience. Make sure your popup, its design and copy are consistent with the current page.
  • Give value to the visitors – after ensuring it’s relevant to the context, give your visitors value before asking for personal data.
  • Be mindful of screen space – make sure your popups are not getting in the way of your visitors, especially on mobile devices. Opt for smaller, modal tooltips rather than full-blow overlays.
  • Don’t show multiple popups – ideally at all. If you absolutely need to, make sure they aren’t showing up at the same time. Exit-intent popups can be an example of a secondary popup.

Don’t assume you need a popup

You really don’t. Your visitors are being attacked by them on most websites already. They’ll be relieved.

Think of alternative methods. Test, test, test. You might find that your popups are great. But never assume they are. Just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean you have to follow the crowd.


What are your thoughts on popups? Have you developed the reflex to dismiss them, or are you paying attention, even to the intrusive ones?

If there’s anything you’d like added to the article, engage in the conversation in the comment section below.

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