I’ve never been much of a fan of comic books, but I’ve nevertheless found the quote “with great power comes great responsibility” to be an apt quote for many circumstances that arise while in the web profession*.
Today, I’m addressing designers of all types. The UX/UI/IDX and Front End types of the world. I’m imploring you to use the bold powers that JQuery has bestowed us for good only. Lightboxes (one such example: Fancybox) have become ubiquitous. And why shouldn’t they? Simple, intuitive, and it reduced use of the back button. Want to see an image? Click. View it. X out of it. Repeat.
But lately I’ve noticed that this trope of web design has become a bit overused, and in particular in a way which could ultimately spell its early demise. I am talking about the modern stepchild of “pop up windows.”
But first a walk down memory lane.
It wasn’t that “pop-up” windows were inherently evil (they weren’t a great user experience, but that’s another story) but it was primarily how they were used. Although some sites used pop-ups for fair and legitimate purposes, it was the fact that they were used to deliver ads in a rather intrusive fashion that resulted in pop-up blockers becoming a standard feature in browsers by 2004. The abuse of them by advertisers resulted in all but banishing them from the web landscape by today**. This is why I’m concerned: because we have a good and highly useful UI element that is increasingly being used in annoying ways akin to pop up ads.
Let me outline the argument for them. People who like these lightboxes which appear upon first entering a website (note: the image above was what I saw immediately after clicking in from Google) will say that:
“You can still see the website, and it is clear and intuitive on how to make it go away.”
Is it a better user-experience than pop-up ads? Probably. But my concern is that the rising tide of these, designed to interrupt the search engine -> website process with an intermediary prompt are exactly what is going to result in the eventual categorization of these lightboxes as nuisances and eventually cause them to be stricken from the internet.
Though I chose a less annoying example above to highlight, it is important to look again to the users to see why this is a poor use of a new technology. Users have shown frustration with making additional clicks en route to their destinations which do not pertain to their goal***. We learned in the days of pop-ups that closing an ad was not considered a positive step towards a user’s goal in the early 2000′s. Is this extra step really any different?
If you don’t believe me, lets look at a couple of quotes from folks who work in marketing. What are they saying about Lightboxes?
[Lightboxes] are also great for advertising. Using a lightbox you can display your advertisement over top of your page when a visitor first arrives. This guarantees that the visitor will see your advertisers message and it is an easy way to create some valuable new ad space on your site. (September 2011 / Source)
…make them too unobtrusive, and you might as well not even have them at all. So where’s the balance? …Today I’d like to start an article series of three parts, the result of which will be a popout-style, jQuery-based box like the one pictured above, which I think strikes a nice balance on the obtrusion-scale (September 2008 / Source)
So what do we do?
I think that JQuery has transformed the user experience of the web rather dramatically in the last five years. I’d like to see this transformation continue. For this to occur, designers and coders will need to take a proactive approach to using tools for their intended purpose- which in this case is showing supplementary content in an intuitive fashion- and not for purposes which obstruct and interfere with the user experience.
I think it is inevitable that Lightboxes will be used for advertising. But if we as designers do not take a stand and attempt to ensure that advertising is done in other manners, it might not be such a far fetched notion that Google Chrome version 20 might be the first browser shipped for release that automatically blocks Lightboxes such as Fancybox.
What do you think? Have you ever been annoyed by a Lightbox? Do you find that advertising in lightboxes is less annoying? I’m curious what others might think.
* Although the quote is probably most widely known as being from the original Spiderman movie from 2002, astute non-comic-book types may wish to attribute it to Voltaire, who is the first writer to have written this popular line.
** The sold hold out that I know of is Netflix, which is still buying pop-under ads on websites.
*** This is a corollary of the “Three Click Rule,” which although is not really a rule, but a guideline which gets at the essence of how people navigate the web. The essence being that users are “generally goal-oriented” but this digression is discussion enough for an entire book, and also a digression which many have taken before.