The (Necessary?) Evil: the Pop-Up

Most of us think of pop-ups the same way we think of bugs–annoying or dangerous little pests, the vehicles for drive-by downloads of spyware or viruses, or the tools of the most callous ad-using web designers. Pop-ups, above all, block a user’s experience of an individual website, and thus they can be unnecessary and irritating interruptions.

But pop-ups, as bad a reputation as they have, CAN be used for good purposes. While the fad of using pop-ups as a layout option may be passe, there is still a legitimate call for the miniaturized window in web design, as we’ll talk about below.

Bad Pop-Ups

The usual breed of pop-ups are used in web design for ads, inconvenient surveys, or even unscrupulous downloads (whether you’re aware of them or not). These pop-ups:

  • Look like cheap ads (various bright colors, huge, primary-colored text, animated GIFs, etc)
  • Appear at inconvenient browsing times
  • Appear without warning when a link is clicked

Good Pop-Ups

What I term “good pop-ups” can contain content that doesn’t necessitate a full webpage, such as a feedback or contact form, a listing of affiliates or joined sites, comment or guestbook forms, etc. Good pop-ups:

  • Contain small amounts of easy-to-scan text or photo content
  • Match your site’s layout style and color scheme, if possible
  • Appear after sufficient warning (i.e., “link opens in new window” or “pop-up will appear”)

Other Important Notes about Pop-Ups

Firstly, you don’t want to overuse pop-ups in your layout. A good rule of thumb, I’ve found, is to use no more than two instances of pop-ups in an entire site, maybe using one as an announcement platform and one as a form for contacting or subscribing.

Secondly, pop-ups should not cover the whole screen. Since you can direct the size and positioning of pop-ups, make sure you are placing an appropriately-sized pop-up where it will not be obtrusive to the rest of your design and content. You want your user to see it, of course, but there’s nothing a user hates worse than having to deal with an unexpected stumbling block in reading a site’s content.

Thirdly, do not make your design hinge on your pop-up. Since many users now have pop-up blockers and ad blockers in their browsers, make your content available both as a pop-up and as a regular page, so nobody misses out on your content.


Pop-ups have long been vilified on the Internet, but by using them smartly and carefully (and not depending on them too heavily), you can include them without annoying your users. Happy readers are returning readers!

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