The Pop-ups Plague: Exploring the Ubiquity of Nuisance Web Elements

Pop-ups. Nobody wants them. Nobody likes them. So why are they everywhere? In today’s online world, pop-ups, cookie notices, subscription interstitials, and donation modals have become a ubiquitous nuisance. They’re sensory bombardments that interrupt and besiege us, and they’re frustratingly difficult to dismiss. So why are they so prevalent?

The spammy website marketing industrial complex insists that pop-ups generate valuable conversions and are totally justified. However, UI/UX experts and nearly everyone who has ever actually used a computer disagrees. The reality is that pop-ups are one of the most hated elements of web design. They provoke irritation and meaningfully disrupt the use of a website, yet they continue to return with an aggressive vengeance.

Developers often make tradeoffs by annoying some users but generating conversions at the same time. However, this decision is based on short-term metrics, not long-term results and actual user sentiment analysis. To truly understand how users feel, active research, not just analytics, is required. Unfortunately, analytics is close to free, and user studies are not. As a result, the developers can’t see how pop-ups make people feel.

Pop-ups can spark outbursts of rage and cause reputational damage to websites over time. The more often people see them, the more they start to glaze over them, which defeats the point of barging into the browsing experience with information that’s supposed to be critical.

While there may be some use cases for pop-ups, they’re generally not a good practice overall. Designers may try to make them context-based, information-based, and less intrusive, but the client gets the final say. The people who develop pop-ups often have no idea about design and user experience. They turn to what others are using for guidance rather than stopping to reconsider.

Inventor of the pop-up, Ethan Zuckerman, apologized in 2014 for the monster he unleashed on the internet. But it was too late. Pop-ups continue to proliferate in the same way the internet flattens into a sameness: because everyone does what everyone else is doing under the assumption that it must be working.

To understand why pop-ups are so prevalent, it’s essential to recognize the manipulative tactics that some websites use. For example, confirmshaming is a technique where websites ask visitors whether they want to “save 15 percent” or “no thanks, I’ll pay full price.” It’s a way of pressuring users into taking a specific action, and it’s highly manipulative.

Under EU and California law, websites have to display information about how data is used and obtain user consent. However, most websites have decided to handle this by serving a pop-up when visitors land. Originally, these cookie notices were well-intentioned, but they’ve started deploying manipulative tactics, such as a prompt to “accept” without making privacy choices.

It’s not just pop-ups that are causing frustration. Websites are also using other intrusive elements, such as auto-playing videos, chatbots, and notifications. These elements can be just as disruptive and annoying as pop-ups, and they all contribute to a poor user experience.

The bottom line is that developers and marketers need to prioritize user experience and find better ways to engage their audience. The focus should be on providing something of value rather than squeezing the most out of a single session. UX is about growing a relationship, and that relationship can’t be built on a foundation of frustration and annoyance.

In conclusion, pop-ups are a plague on web design and user experience. They’re manipulative, annoying, and disruptive. However, they continue to proliferate because developers and marketers believe they generate valuable conversions. The reality is that short-term metrics are not a substitute for long-term results and user sentiment analysis. The people who develop pop-ups often have no idea about design and user experience, and they turn to what others are doing for guidance rather than stopping to reconsider. As users, we can only hope that developers and marketers will start to prioritize user experience and find better ways to engage their audience.

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