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My company's product is a popup modal widget that shows information
about different terms mentioned in blogs, when hovering over a term
As lead designer, I find myself wondering if that's the best approach,
because as I see it, people hate popups, no matter what's in them.

Are modal popups a good UX solution?

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6 Answers 6

...popup modal widget that shows information about different terms mentioned in blogs, when hovering over a term...

Am I reading this right? You're saying, a modal popup happens when someone simply hovers over a term? This sounds suspiciously like those ads you get from double underlined words in blogs and news sites.

If this is related to ads, I have no advice for you. You're going to have to get it all from user testing. There's no standard/easy way that you can interrupt a person who's performing some task they want to do, and force them to read or become interested in something you want them to. And, I'd venture to guess that all popups related to ads are a poor solution.

...people hate popups, no matter what's in them.

I wouldn't say that. People just hate popups that warn them about something they were already committed to doing. (e.g. Are you sure you want to quit? Are you sure you want to delete this file? etc.) This leads back to "Never use a warning, when what you mean is undo."

Popups are perfectly fine when there's a valid reason. For instance, when copying files in Windows Vista/7 from one folder to another. If it reaches a conflict with a file of the same name, there is a popup. The popup gives you several options to how to resolve the conflict, as well as a way to avoid future popups by repeating your choice for future conflicts.

In computing, it's all about flow. You don't want to break a person's flow unless you absolutely have to.

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Agree with you that commercial popups are a disaster, but I assure you, my company's popup contains only relevant semantic data related to specific term. valued information. –  Vsync Jan 21 '10 at 9:12
    
no, the popup I make isn't commercial at all. take a look... headup.com. i'm making another version, smaller, that will be out in a matter of days :p –  Vsync Jan 25 '10 at 7:41

In the first place, are popups useful?

Maybe, what you're referring to when you said "even they're useful" is the information they provide and not the popups themselves. If popups aren't usable, their contents won't even reach the user (no matter how useful they are).

I don't like most popups (especially the ones online). They just distract me so I close them even before reading what they say. The information could be useful, but its approach of calling my attention when I'm busy with something else is just not worth it.

I think, you have to find other ways to reach the user. I like how notifications come out on UXExchange and similar sites. Firefox and Chrome do the same thing when they ask you if you want your password to be remembered. A bar sits on top of screen. You can choose to read it, ignore it, and even close it. It's unobtrusive.

EDIT: Btw, when do the popups come out? Does the user expect them? If it's something like the friend list on Facebook, which pops up when you ask for it, it's fine.

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Modal popups on websites are rarely a good idea. Especially if they appear when the user hovers over something. Users are likely to trigger the popup accidentally and then will have to interrupt their flow to figure out what happened, and why, and then close the popup.

For information popups such as the ones you describe, here are some alternatives:

  • make the popup appear only when the user clicks the relevant word (avoids accidental triggering)
  • use a "balloon" that appears on hover and goes away when the mouse moves away (less obtrusive)
  • have the information appear within the page, either in a dedicated area or in an expanding section (again, less obtrusive)
  • If there's a lot of information, put it in a separate page (unobtrusive, bookmarkable, but slower)
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People hate them. No doubt about it - It disturbs the flow of what ever you were doing. The fact that you have to move your mouse to close the pop-up or click a key on your keyboard takes time (not even talking about reading the content, which most often comes in an awful, unreadable font & spacing).

But... sometimes we need them. Users need notification that will help them with certain actions.

I think that instead of a popup, the use of a "bubble" or something in that nature with the use of the right colors & alignment will be the great substitution.

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Allan,

I highly suggest that you read chapter 24, entitled Dialogs, of the book About Face 3 by Alan Cooper

I think that it will give you the insight you are looking for into the pros and cons of both modeless and modal pop ups.

Cheers

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They are "heavy", but useful. Every time you use them, the user has to "think" a little bit to lift the modal into his/her mind. Sometimes, you can't avoid it, but always try to imagine life without them and see if it works. If you can do the functionality directly on the page, it is highly preferable.

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