From reading previous questions about modal windows, my understanding is that they're best used for short required processes, or for providing help/info during a process that shouldn't be interrupted by going to a new page.

My current project is an online education site. The content expert wants to use modal windows for some formative activities, because they believe it will help the user stay focused on the task while they're doing it. These are not assessments, so there is no need to prevent users from looking up other content while they work.

I'm working with restrictions on the size of the modal window which mean that the activities get kind of crammed in. My preference would be to give each activity it's own page - I think it will allow the content to 'breathe' while still removing distractions.

I can't seem to find any user-testing results for anything similar. Has anyone faced a similar situation and had a clear result or user preference?

2 Answers 2


The intent of modal windows is to serve situations when it’s logically impossible to proceed without completing an activity This includes things like getting the user name and password before interacting with a page or window, or confirming a dangerous action, or waiting for protracted processing that cannot be conducted in the background (e.g., installation). The Windows UX Interaction Guidelines suggest this is limited to “critical or infrequent, one-off tasks” (p15). I don’t think that applies in your case.

Using modal windows to try to control user behavior is inconsistent with basic UX principles.

As much as possible, allow users to do whatever they want at all times. Avoid using modes that lock them into one operation and prevent them from working on anything else until that operation is completed. (Apple Human Interface Guidelines for OSX, p48)

I’m unaware of any research showing modal windows help "improve focus," or if more focus (however it's defined) is necessarily better. Maybe students are a pretty good judge on when they need to concentrate and when they need a break. Like you, I sense pedagogical advantages to allowing the user to refer to other windows when working on one activity (e.g., to look up a term in a glossary).

I’d toss the ball back to the content expert and tell him or her to provide research or user testing showing the benefits of modal windows for this sort of thing.

  • Thanks so much for this - I think if I do as you suggest and toss the ball back with the links to the Windows and Apple guidelines and ask for any evidence to support this way of using modal windows I might be able to shift some opinions. As you say, it's the kind of decision the student should make for themselves.
    – stringy
    Commented Dec 1, 2011 at 0:26

The answer, above, mostly covers it. I would just add that if you can find some screen real estate for inline help text, you will make your content expert and users happy. Maybe set aside some space in the right column for explanatory text, or put short explanations of objects in tooltips. Similarly, CSS can be used to create distinctive underlines for terms, which display definitions on mouse-over.

Apple's guidelines are a great start. See also: http://developer.android.com/guide/practices/ui_guidelines/index.html http://developer.gnome.org/hig-book/2.32/

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