There are many situations in which popup windows are currently used in modern UIs. Their primary use appears to be when displaying an error message or other descriptive information is desirable, without disturbing the content of the currently displayed interface to the user, at the cost of disrupting the user in the process.

This allows the system to be abstracted into its own separate notification stack, which is useful for, for example, OS-level services that may not be cognizant of the running application but still need to display information about its state (such as when it crashes, when an update is required, or when it fails driver signing). This is used similarly in web programming, but to a far more dubious degree in this author's humble opinion.

We also need the notion of display priority to frame my question. For sake of counter-definition, we will define a popunder as a popup window with lowest display priority. This variation on popup messages appears to serve no purpose other than to obscure the desired window content, which is useful for persisting user attention beyond the scope of the currently running interface. These allow for marketing and exit path messages from the current interface, which, by definition of closing or migrating away from the interface, persist beyond the user's desire to interact with it any further. I would thus class this strategy as lacking empathy for the expensiveness of user attention, thus lacking merit, but I could be very mistaken.

However, given this base intuition, the messages that I am most interested in are popup messages higher than the lowest display priority, typically with higher display priority than the window the user is currently interacting with.

My question, then:

In which situations are popup windows at non-minimum display priority most appropriate? There are several cases in which they are used, but many of these cases seem to lack robustness, empathy for the user, or cognizance of proper flow of interaction. Specifically, I am looking for a unifying pattern or set of guiding examples within which to frame my decisions to or to not use a popup message, especially when an alternative strategy, such as when an in-page error message or when other modal UI strategies are more appropriate.

My intuition is that they are useful only in cases where user interruption is immediately desirable or in cases where an alternative notification strategy is expensive to provide. But, I can think of no robust examples for the former or justifiable situations for the latter, and I would like to formalize this if I can.


From a recent draft of a style guide I wrote:

Pop-ups (or modals) are appropriate when: (a.) It's critical to get the user's attention; or (b.) a task must be completed to avoid leaving the user's data in an ambiguous state. Keep modal tasks fairly short and narrowly focused. You don't want your users to experience a modal view as a mini application within your application. Always provide an obvious and safe way to exit a modal task, for instance, include a "Cancel" or "Close" button in the pop-up box. Users should always be able to predict the fate of their work when they dismiss a modal view.

Here's JN on the exception to the rule: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/open_new_windows.html

I have a counter question: With the proliferation of tabbed browsing, is the old prohibition on pop-ups still valid?

  • +1, AA because this addresses the question completely. -- As for your question, I'm not sure which case you're referring to specifically. Are you referring to popups (that is, "pop-ups") that appear in a new tab of a tabbed browsing environment, or the fact that, for new windows, this form of modality is more easily understood because of a common presence of exactly one window before the popup? In the latter case, I agree that this prohibition should be reinspected, though I maintain that inspecting other options first may be the correct course of action. – MrGomez Feb 21 '12 at 22:32
  • there are use cases where a real popup is still better then a new tab, like live chat applications for example. It allows you to navigate the original page while still being able to use the chat, also you can have the chat on top of the original page and chat with support while still looking at the page, which wouldnt work with a tab. – user1721135 Feb 8 '13 at 11:16

I regard pop-ups necessary when they are the immediate result of the user's action, and when they stop the workflow at a critical point were a user's decision or awareness is needed.

Error Messages

An error message alerts users of a problem that has already occurred. By contrast, a warning message alerts users of a condition that might cause a problem in the future. Error messages can be presented using modal dialog boxes, in-place messages, notifications, or balloons.

Warning Messages

A warning message is a modal dialog box, in-place message, notification, or balloon that alerts the user of a condition that might cause a problem in the future.


A confirmation is a modal dialog box that asks if the user wants to proceed with an action.


A notification informs users of events that are unrelated to the current user activity, by briefly displaying a balloon from an icon in the notification area. The notification could result from a user action or significant system event, or could offer potentially useful information from Microsoft Windows or an application.

See a comprehensive guide from Microsoft

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