Back to the Opening New Windows Issue?

Open New Windows for PDF and other Non-Web Documents is Jakob Nielsen’s latest Alertbox article, dated August 29, 2005. Although he’d previously stated not to force links to open new windows, he now feels that you should indeed set links to open in new windows for PDF and other non-Web documents. Even after reading this new article, I still feel strongly about considering the website’s target audience, letting the user choose, and avoiding accessibility problems.

After reading Nielsen’s article, it sounds like he advocates that we should assume that everyone will be confused by opening a PDF or other non-Web document within the existing browser window. Granted, he did the study, and I didn't; however, I don’t think it’s that black-and-white. His testing was also with intranet sites, not public websites on the Internet. Although he feels the same rule should apply, I’m not so sure I agree with that, especially since he states that many other types of documents are common on intranets. Although there are certainly plenty of PDF documents and other non-Web documents on the Web, they’re not nearly as common on the Web as they are on intranets.

In his article, Nielsen states:

Users are easily confused when websites link them to non-Web documents that offer a significantly different user experience than that of browsing Web pages.

In user testing, we often observe the following behavior: When people are finished using PDF files, Word memos, PowerPoint slides, Excel spreadsheets, and similar documents, they click the window’s close box instead of the Back button. This gets them out of the document all right, but not back to the Web page from whence they started.

Blowing away browser windows is particularly bad on intranets, where users often have to log in or jump through other hoops to access document repositories.

Because users frequently close document windows, the best guidelines for linking to non-Web documents are:

  • Open non-Web documents in a new browser window.
  • Warn users in advance that a new window will appear.
  • Remove the browser chrome (such as the Back button) from the new window.

So, what to do? Here’s what I think at the moment.

  • Allow the user to choose whether to open the PDF or other non-Web document in a new window, in the existing window, or to download for offline viewing.
  • When linking to a PDF or other non-Web document, indicate the file type within the content, such as Planning Your Web Site FAQ (PDF). Be sure to include a prominently placed link to a (hopefully free) plugin, if needed, to view the PDF or other non-Web document content.
  • Consider the target audience, allowing for the less computer- or browser-savvy. More savvy users already know they can press the SHIFT key when clicking on a link or right-click on a link to open it in a new window. For less savvy users, you could provide separate links for opening in a new window or the existing window, along with letting them know they can download it for offline viewing. For users who are brand new to computers and Web browsing, it could also be helpful to include help links, such as links to information about the document type, the plugin or program needed, what it means to open separate, new browser windows, and how to download files from the Web.
  • What about accessibility issues and going against government or other accessibility requirements by opening new windows and removing browser features? See Day 16: Not opening new windows from Mark Pilgrim’s Dive into Accessibility.
  • Although Nielsen states to remove the browser chrome that doesn’t work in the new window anyway, such as the Back button, I’m not so sure I agree completely on that, either, although I see his point. Along with the potential accessibility problems, wouldn’t it be potentially confusing to force a new window for these documents along with forcing the removal of browser chrome, including the Back button? Once again, I still lean more toward giving the user the choice and considering the website’s target audience.

I’m curious to know if Nielsen’s study actually tested people with opening new windows and removing browser chrome, including the Back button. Hopefully he tested that to prove that it’s not confusing to open these in a new window, but his new article doesn’t say whether or not this was included in his usability testing.

Test Nielsen’s Approach Here!

Well, I had to try this myself to see what I think about Nielsen’s recommendation. Below I’ve provided some links to PDF documents so you can also experiment and see what you think about all this. I’d love your feedback, too, so feel free to let me know what you think about this.

  • Regular link: Planning Your Web Site FAQ (PDF)
    Although I’m sure most of this weblog’s readers already know this, just in case you don't: To open it in a new window if desired, press the SHIFT key as you click the link, or right-click on the link with your mouse and select the 'Open Link in New Window' or with Opera or Firefox you can also choose 'Open in new page' or 'Open Link in New Tab,' respectively. (Yes, Opera and Firefox have more options, too, but that’s a start for this little exercise.)
  • New Window link: Planning Your Web Site FAQ (PDF)
    This link uses JavaScript to open a new window with no browser chrome except the title and scrollbars. You’ll need JavaScript turned on to see the chromeless window, although it should open without JavaScript as a regular link.

Which of the two above link approaches do you prefer? Or do you prefer a different approach? Do you find the chromeless version less confusing? Do you think it’s better to open PDFs and other non-Web documents in new windows? Thoughts? I’d love your feedback.

Interestingly, Nielsen’s article is based on studies of intranets, although he feels that Internet websites should be handled the same way. He doesn’t state in his article how computer-savvy the users were in his usability tests, though, or whether they were based on a sampling from a range of levels. It appears that the report from which he based his article, however, goes into this detail. See Intranet Usability: Design Guidelines from Studies with Intranet Users, available for $248 single license, or $468 for your organization.

It will be interesting to see how the fallout goes on this one, although I suspect it won’t be anything near Nielsen’s statement about Flash being 99% bad or that unvisited links should always be blue and visited links should always be purple (see his Original Top 10 Mistakes in Web Design).

On the other hand, Nielsen does change his mind at times, such as his May 2004 article on link colors, Guidelines for Visualizing Links. So maybe he’ll change his mind on the new window issue in time, too. I’m not so sure I’ll change my mind, as I’m bent on giving the users the choice, although I’d love to hear other thoughts on this issue. What do you think? Agree? Disagree?


Comments, Trackbacks: 3 so far. Add yours!

  1. Since tabbed browsing got included in Mozilla browsers I probably middle click (open in new tab) links more often than left click them. If you are setting things to open in a new window it is good to remember people browsing this way. Your example is good because I can open it in a new tab without it then opening a new window.

    I am still not really sure whether this is good for users, some of the users at my work would complain about this as they would think the link has broken their internet (browsers).

    11:06 pm, pdt29 August, 2005Comment by Ryan S

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  2. I’m not sure if this happens to anyone else except me, but when I try and open a PDF in a browser, it freezes the browser window to the point where I think it is crashing my computer. Then about 60 seconds later, the browser finally opens the PDF. For this reason, I personally prefer the PDF to open in a new window. I also agree that that should be my choice. Some people might not like that. As long as the link is labeled with (PDF 350KB), I am happy. I recently installed the “PDF Download” extension in FireFox and love it. Now when I click a link that contains a PDF, an alert window pops up and states that a link to a PDF was clicked and then asks me what I want action I want to take. The options are download PDF, open in new tab, and open as HTML in new tab. I recommend this extension to everyone who hates opening PDF in the browser window.

    06:04 am, pdt31 August, 2005Comment by Jeff Louella

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  3. Personally I hate it when a Pdf opens in the normal browser window. Generally I open a pdf but want to keep the website open at the same time - as the content of both are often linked. Out of habbit I often close the browser thinking I’m closing the PDF application - might sound stoopid of me but this time I agree Norman; I expect an application to work like an application and a browser to work like a browser.

    I have the same problem with my online banking but the other way around. It looks like a website and acts pretty much like a website until I use the browser buttons e.g. 'back'. Then it kindly logs me out without further a do!

    09:13 am, pdt12 September, 2005Comment by Mazza

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This discussion has been closed. Thanks to all who participated.

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