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Our company runs about 1,000 websites for various clients, and we just implemented a feature that will allow them to create their own modals in a "back end" that we've created for them. They are basic Bootstrap Modals and the feature works great.

We're at the point of "selling" the product to our clients, but management fears the term "Modal" isn't in the client's lexicon, so we're trying to figure out a better term. Web standards over the years have labeled "pop up" with such stigma we won't go anywhere near that .. And while technically a popup is a separated browser window opened without the consent of the surfer, the stigma around the word is still there.

What do you webmasters call Modals when talking to your non-tech-savvy clients? Do we just try to call them Modals and have a "what's this" icon? IMHO Management is heaving around geriatric terms like "online billboard", which is an outdated concept, on top of using a "sales" term -- Which these are more for notifications, even if advertising a discount. I like something more like "A place for important notifications" but that's wordy .. Is there an industry standard laymen's word for the term "modal"?

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    They pop up and deserve all the popup stigma. I don't really care if it's a separate window as long as it interrupts me and asks me to sign up to a newsletter.
    – Džuris
    Jul 20 at 8:01
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    @Džuris That makes sense if it's unrelated to the task like an ad. But if it's just a form or confirmation dialog there's nothing insidious. It's just part of the application flow.
    – Barmar
    Jul 20 at 14:27
  • Sure @Barmar, my comment was a bit tongue in cheek. However the popup windows can be a legit part of the flow just as well :)
    – Džuris
    Jul 20 at 15:15
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    @Džuris in the business we're in, our clients use them to notify the end-user of current situations, such as storms that may damage homes, discounts related to the industry etc .. So they are very much a part of the flow and are relevant content to the end-user.
    – Zak
    Jul 20 at 15:25
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    @slebetman "Notifications" aren't modal.
    – MrWhite
    Jul 21 at 12:17

5 Answers 5

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"Modal" describes how it works (preventing any other operations being performed while the child window is open), not what it looks like (which is typically what clients use to communicate).

In the context of the web, I'd probably use the word "overlay" if it's a generic modal that can be used for any purpose. If it's for confirmation prompts, etc., dialog boxes, alerts and prompts are all words that get used to describe this kind of thing pretty commonly.

For image galleries, they're often called "lightboxes".

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Perhaps you should go to the historical origin of the modal word applied to UI to find more generic alternatives. Sometimes the terms used in the definition are more elementary than those defined.

There is an interesting answer on EnglishSE where you can get ideas:

Modal: Restrictive or limited interaction due to operating in a mode. Modal often describes a secondary window that restricts a user's interaction with the owner window.

With a modal dialog, you set your application in a particular mode (a different "state" if you will), whereby only actions pertaining to that "mode" are accepted, hence preventing UI actions outside of the dialog.

But, if I had to explain the operation of a modal window to a child or an elderly person not used to working with computers, the first thing that comes to mind as symbols is the comic bubbles: Info bubble. From which more intuitive ideas can arise such as: Descriptive bubbles, Informative bubbles where bubble can be replaced by dialog, box, frame, panel.

In Adobe applications there are modals with specific advice or tips that can be displayed only once and then permanently hidden by the user. Adobe simply calls them dialogs.

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    some tech users do use dialog box Jul 19 at 20:21
  • It's been a while since I've heard "dialog box" spelled out, but when you do spell it out, it turned out that it's the word I've been thinking about @RiteshGupta Jul 29 at 2:19
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The proper name is "Modal Window", but you can also present it as a modal dialog box, pop-up window, pop-up notification, or even lightbox.

Regardless of what you call it, it's a good idea to explain what it is and what kind of content your users can view in these modal windows by using an an image or even an animation of the interaction.

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In a comment to the question, you indicate your clients are expected to use these Modals for must-see messages, so "Important Message" and "Critical Notification" seem to be good labels for the feature. These are plain English (adjective-noun), and describe what the feature does instead of how it is done, which should aid comprehension and adoption.

Further, if your clients like the feature, you will have carved out space for a future more general feature "Notifications" with numerous attributes to control timing and behavior, and which could be triggered from an event handler, used as an operation flow step, marked as critical which would force them to be acknowledged/dismissed, etc.

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When it comes to nomenclature in the IT sector, there usually seems to be a mixture of terms that stems from the technical and programming language that sometimes evolve over time in a more design-centric environment that reflects the use of languages and terms that are closer to what a non-technical person might use.

A clear description of what a modal is and the traditional/conventional behaviour of modals is the implementation of another mode of viewing content for the user. In the past this involved introducing a window and a background that obscures or hides the previous window or content. Hence it was also called a lightbox because only the current context or content is lighted up and everything else goes to the background.

These days, there are variations on how you can implement this behaviour, and therefore I think more generic terms have been defined. A very common term used is popup, which is essentially anything that 'pops up' on the screen when something triggers it to do so (like those annoying sign up dialog boxes). But that's only one part of the description, which defines the behaviour but not the look of the component.

There are a myriad of examples (and terms) ranging from dialog, window, notifications, toast, alert that describe various visual and styling elements which are often associated with a popup type of behaviour.

Depending on how specific you want to be, you can propose something like a "pop-up window" or "dialog box" to a client that can mean basically anything that can be triggered to display some content and invite some interaction to something very specific like a "sign-up form" or "pop-up feedback survey" to describe specific use cases.

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