Answer: Do nothing
Reasoning: As discussed in class, allowing website developers to control how links open on users’ browsers is a sensitive topic. The easy way of forcing a link to open in a new window is using the ‘target=_blank’ attribute of the anchor tag. In the old days, HTML 4 and older, it was considered good practice to force windows that link to external websites to open in a new window.
However, countless usability studies have proven that the majority of users only know how to use the forward/back buttons on the browser they are using. Window management may seem simple to us, but novice users are completely unaware when a new window opens and are lost when asked to go back to where they were.
Jakob Nielsen is a famous writer who has defined simple rules for improving website usability. #2 of the ‘Top Ten Design Mistakes of 1999″ reads:
Opening up new browser windows is like a vacuum cleaner sales person who starts a visit by emptying an ash tray on the customer’s carpet. Don’t pollute my screen with any more windows, thanks (particularly since current operating systems have miserable window management). If I want a new window, I will open it myself!Designers open new browser windows on the theory that it keeps users on their site. But even disregarding the user-hostile message implied in taking over the user’s machine, the strategy is self-defeating since it disables the Back button which is the normal way users return to previous sites. Users often don’t notice that a new window has opened, especially if they are using a small monitor where the windows are maximized to fill up the screen. So a user who tries to return to the origin will be confused by a grayed out Back button.
Usability Consultant Carolyn Snyder has the following to say on the subject:
I’ve saved this one for last because it’s especially hard to believe — some people can use Windows applications for years without understanding the concept of task switching. (When I point to the task bar and ask them what it’s for, they can’t tell me.) Thus, spawning second browser windows can completely throw users off track because it removes the one thing they are sure how to use: the “Back” button.
In one study, a site provided links to related books on Amazon.com, which opened in a second browser window. Using Amazon wasn’t relevant to our test, so as soon as the page came up the users tried to back out. One pair of users, upon discovering the grayed-out “Back” button, looked at each other with something akin to horror. They were quite honestly stumped and had no idea how to proceed. After a couple minutes of discussion, they finally closed the second window. In another recent study, six out of 17 users had difficulty with multiple windows, and three of them required assistance to get back to the first window and continue the task.
Suggestion: Avoid spawning multiple browser windows if at all possible — taking the “Back” button away from users can make their experience so painful that it usually far outweighs whatever benefit you’re trying to provide. One common theory in favor of spawning the second window is that it keeps users from leaving your site, but ironically it may have just the opposite effect by preventing them from returning when they want to.
Suggestion: If a second window is necessary, provide an obvious “close” or “back” link and don’t provide navigation to other parts of the site; some users will blithely continue their task in the second (often smaller) window, which can lead to further confusion.
In the end, the result is that you should leave all anchor tags as normal links that open in the current window, which is actually the easiest (default) of all the current options. By doing so, you leave it completely up to the individual user to decide how and where they want the link to open using their browser’s settings or by using hotkeys to control that ability (typically CTRL for new tab, SHIFT for new window).