Let's try bringing this back to basic emotions:
It's a reasonably safe statement to say people don't like being blocked from doing something. It doesn't matter whether you're on a website or in a physical store. When you want to leave and something gets in your way, then the action of being blocked has a negative effect.
I had a thought that there may be a variation on the exit popup: detecting that the user is about to leave (maybe!) and show a popup before they actually click to close or click the back button. There's a demo of this. Hmmm, ok it's a lacklustre implementation, especially since it keeps coming up rather than a one-off show - but being blocked on the way to the exit is not feeling any better is it?
So - once users have made up their mind to leave, whether they have clicked the close button already or are on the way to doing it, the fact is that users have already made a decision about the site and want to leave. It's very very hard to switch a decision around from a deep negative to a positive. The best you could hope for is a disgruntled purchase.
For this reason, tempting users with an offer or a discount code via an exit popup is simply the wrong way to engage customers. It's far better to engage with them before they reach the negative feeling of wanting to leave.
I have come across situations where popups (not at exit) have worked well but the environment needs to be right and the execution needs to be well thought out:
- the perception of the site already needs to be one of good reputation - a popup on a website that is already annoying users is only going to compound the negativity
- the design of the popup needs to be in context of the design of the rest of the page
- the user needs not to be in the middle of a task (so browsing is ok and in the middle of zooming into a product is bad)
- the popup needs not to appear too soon - nor too late
- the copy on the popup needs to be sensitive and well thought out
- the popup needs not to appear too often on repeated visits
- the popup needs to appeal to basic emotions such as scarcity or fear of loss - so users feel they are special or lucky to see the popup, and also take not of the details for fear of not seeing it again or losing/forgetting the discount code
- the popup should be shown when users seem to be taking some time to consider something rather than flicking around erratically. You can detect different behaviours by frequency of flicks and speed of mouse movements etc
- waiting too long to show the popup is bad as it starts to approach the 'popup at exit' mentality. Users are far from stupid and will quickly turn from feeling they are lucky to knowing that an attempt is being made to try and keep them on the site.
- it may be effective to defer the popup to a return visit, further promoting the scarcity emotion whilst not detracting from a first browsing experience. If a user returns, they are already in a positive or receptive state.
Unfortunately, very few implementations take the care and consideration to design in all these features, and I have only seen one that has done it all, and it was such a positive experience that I immediately scribbled down the discount code and shared it with my partner, and it probably doubled my purchase - largely because of the appeal to basic emotions I mentioned above - scarcity and fear of loss.
A disadvantage of using popups at all:
Using discount codes in popups, if done well, may be a great short term boost to sales. However, I do question the (hard to research) longer term effect.
Since my own positive experience with a popup above, when I return to the site, I sometimes delete all the cookies on that site to try and see if it makes the popup appear again. Then I'm frustrated that I can't get it to show, and maybe I won't buy from them again until the popup appears again because I know I can get a discount sometimes.
So while clever tactics may be used to show a popup successfully once, then not understanding the rules clearly about how, why and when the popup appeared can also lead to confusion, doubt, negativity, and a feeling that the site should just be more open and consistent with all visitors in the first place!
It is worth mentioning that just because something may be generally accepted as a poor UX practice, doesn't prevent a decent and well executed implementation of a feature from increasing conversion rate, and for many businesses that is the main goal. Vistaprint presented some research to the UPA Boston conference in 2012 which laid out real A/B testing results vs UX best practices and expert opinions [slideshare].
Not all tests resulted in winning changes, but many did. Whilst they didn't play with exit popups (as far as I know), they do make valid and relevant points:
- best practices are only general
- a/b testing is critical
- context and relevance matters
- small changes can make a difference
- nothing is straightforward
- there's a balance between standardization and innovation
- continue to optimize
- it depends