Experience Design

HTML target=”_blank” attibute: to use or not to use?

I’ve had this discussion several times in my career in the user experience field: Should this link open in a new tab/window (HTML link attribute target=”_blank”) or in the same window? My understanding has generally been that if the link goes to an external site or to a help or informational-type page, it should be opened as a new window along with some affordance that the link goes away from the site (per WCAG 10.1). However, I dug a little deeper into the pros and cons on this topic and found a number of good arguments on both sides.
Let’s go over the reasons to use a new tab/window first:

  1. For external links, a new tab/window more clearly communicates that the destination is an entirely separate site, and doesn’t “close” your site at the same time.
  2. For external and help or informational links, both windows can be viewed simultaneously, assuming the target window is sized appropriately.
  3. With the newer tab-based browsers, users have a much easier time managing multiple open URLs and even prefer this to a long history in the same tab.
  4. With mobile devices, new windows are better than same windows because if the user wants to go back to the previous page, they don’t have to reload it.
  5. Users with multiple monitors like to have separate windows to display on separate monitors.
Here are some of the arguments for not using the target=”blank” attribute:
  1. You “break the back button” because the user does not have a back trail of URLs.
  2. Users get confused by new tabs/windows.
  3. Users have too many tabs/windows open if this gets overused.
  4. If you force a new window, users who don’t like that functionality have no choice, whereas if you use the same window, users can use CTRL+click or right-click/Open in New (or with some mouse controls, a dedicated button) to choose whether or not they want a separate window.
  5. Your web statistics won’t be as reliable because this will create artificially longer visit times when users are actually on other sites. Note: this is typically handled by a forced timeout after a designated amount of time without activity.
  6.  If the user clicks the link to an external site, it likely means he/she is done with your site, and it will irritate them that you have left an unwanted tab/window open for them to close.
  7. Some screen readers do not notify users when a new window has opened, causing accessibility concerns.
I believe that having a good ongoing knowledge of how your users access and use your site will help to weigh individual decisions in this matter. I’d love to see some data regarding how many users are aware that they have the option to open links in new tabs or windows; I’ve seen younger users do it automatically, but I’d bet that a large number of users aren’t aware of the feature, and on a mobile device (I’m only aware of iPhone’s feature) it’s a slow-tap that I don’t know how many users have discovered.

Thoughts or input? Please share.

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Molly Malsam

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