Lightbox-like interaction mechanisms present a dismissable interaction area within a larger page, greying out the rest of the page while the area is presented.

Originally they were used to show images, but the technique has expanded to include presenting forms and other complex interactions.

Is this use considered a "dialog box"? Why or why not?

  • This might sound glib (and I don't mean it to, but that's why i've made it a comment not an answer), but I feel like a lightbox is a tool. It can be used for a dialog box, in which case I'd call it that, it can also be used for other purposes... and when used for other things, I'd call it by that name. Commented Oct 2, 2012 at 15:51
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    What's the purpose of the question..? Why does it matter whether it's considered a dialog box? I'd rephrase and ask whether specific limitations/principles/whatever related to dialog boxes also apply to lightboxes, if that's your meaning. Commented Oct 2, 2012 at 15:56

3 Answers 3


It's not necessarily a dialog, but it's necessarily a modal window.

Think of it: it might not ask anything from the user (like a gallery viewer), but it doesn't allow you to interact with the rest of the page. Even if you click outside of it, you'll interact with the window (asking it to close), not the site behind.

Therefore, your system switch to a mode.

In old times, the computers have shown modal but not fullscreen windows only for dialogs. Hence the term "modal window" and "dialog" or "modal dialog" became synonyms (the only reasonable exception for a non-modal dialog is the Edit -> Find function in most apps, most times even preferences are modal)

A dialog is something which tells you something and waits for your answer. A form for example, is a dialog.

So it's not necessarily a dialog, but it's necessarily modal.

It's not a pop-up, as a popup is something which actually pops up system-wise. This doesn't necessarily "jump", it's not a system-wide feature, it's a page-wide feature.

I'm sure Cooper's About Face has more to tell you.


Though the term "dialog box" conjures ideas similar to the one that Wikipedia shows here:

enter image description here

...the definition of Dialog is rather broad and applies to most of human-computer interaction. Pretty much everything is a dialog; the user gives input and the computer gives feedback. You click the big red button and the computer says it's shutting down. So you could certainly call these dialog boxes...but that would mean you can call just about any box a dialog box/window.

Dialog window is a fairly recognizable term though; people will mostly think of the "yes/no/cancel" style pop up that interrupts their work (and oh, they sure can interrupt). I'd refrain from calling them Dialog Boxes if only to keep that meaning distinct to the little yes/no/cancel windows that are ubiquitous.

I prefer to simply call lightboxes modal windows instead because they are, well modal, as defined. Lightbox seems to be a more popular/fancy name recently because it sounds slicker, but I prefer the descriptive name. If you're not using the term in a user-facing manner, it's generally best to prefer the descriptive, discrete name. It's not really a light and it's not even really a box. It's a window, and it's modal. Modal window.

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    Well, if we stick to the accepted definition of a window, a lightbox is not really that :). It's not represented on the taskbar, it can't be minimized, it has no "real" title of its own etc., it's not part of the windows management mechanism. And most times it's only partially modal, since it's modal to the current browser tab but not to anything else. But nitpicking aside, I agree :). Commented Oct 2, 2012 at 16:18
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    @VitalyMijiritsky not all windows are in the taskbar. Not all of them can be minimized. I'd still call in-browser pop-up windows "windows". They're more than "dialogs" and I don't like just calling them "boxes" considering they emulate the majority of the functionality of a window in most cases.
    – Ben Brocka
    Commented Oct 2, 2012 at 16:21
  • Incidentally: lightboxes are named after a type of backlit boxes used for viewing transparent slides - like x-rays and photographic negatives. They light up a subset of a dark transparency to bring attention to it. Commented Oct 2, 2012 at 21:03

Must be something in the zeitgiest, I was just reviewing this today. Different shops have different terminology -- lightbox, dialog box, modal, nagger, pop-up, alert.

More important is what they do. Does the box demand an action, a choice of one or more actions, or is it purely informational?

On our six-year-old platform, we've got a half-dozen different looks and rules for serving these things. That's too many. It should be just two design treatments: one for required actions and one for optional actions.

Also, you have to ask, when are these interruptions really necessary? Most routine user-feedback/messaging can be handled in-page. Save these modal alerts for crucial information.

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