Needy Design Patterns: Please-Don’t-Go Popups & Get-Back-to-Me Tabs
In UX design, “dark patterns” are deceptive strategies used by designers to trick users into doing potentially harmful things that support their organization’s goals. For example, sites that automatically add extra items into users’ shopping carts are using a dark pattern to increase their sales.
The two design patterns discussed in this article fall into a similar (if slightly less immoral) category, which we call “needy patterns.” These are design patterns aimed at grabbing users’ attention. They’re driven by goals like increasing email-newsletter signups or page views, but they slow users down or degrade their overall experience.
There are many patterns that could fall into this needy category. In this article we focus on two needy patterns that have recently become popular and that interfere with browser-tab usage.
There are two primary types of behavior involving the use of multiple browser tabs:
- Parallel browsing, where a user alternates between tasks, generally using one tab per task
- Page parking, where a user opens multiple pages into different tabs in support of one large task (such as comparing items to buy, or researching a topic)
Millennials in particular tend to rely on page parking as an information-seeking strategy. The two needy patterns we discuss here hurt people who use multiple tabs, whether for parallel browsing or page parking. We’ve named these needy patterns:
The Please-Don’t-Go Popup
- The please-don’t-go popup
- The get-back-to-me browser tab
This pattern is sometimes known as an “exit-intent popup,” an “exit popup,” or an “exit modal” (in an attempt to disassociate this pattern with the reviled word “popup," which is tainted by being the #1 most-hated advertising technique). These popups lurk unseen until the user starts to move the mouse towards the top of the page. Panicking that the user is about to bounce, the exit popup triggers a desperate, final attempt to keep the user’s interest. These popups often contain content such as, “Before you go…!” or “Don’t miss…!” Sometimes they offer discounts, advertise an email newsletter, or suggest related content.
ExitPopup TNW News
An exit popup from TNW News pushes the organization’s email newsletter.
The exact functionality of each exit popup differs. Sometimes the popup will appear as soon as the user starts moving towards the top of the page; in other cases, it will show up after a specific amount of time (5 seconds, 10 seconds, etc.). Sometimes the popup is combined with animation — for example, creating a shaking effect. Sometimes it works alongside cookies, so a user who sees an exit popup and stays on the site won’t see it again.
ExitPopup WP beginner
This exit popup on wpbeginner.com uses a shake animation, which has the effect of making a popup even more annoying.
The goal is to catch users before they abandon the site, to show them something they may have missed, or to provide one final appeal to capture their attention. And, according to the logic of exit popups, who cares if this appeal doesn’t work and users are annoyed? There’s nothing to lose, because they’re leaving anyway, right?
Wrong. When users engage in page parking, they systematically move between opened tabs, saving their place to return later. The code behind exit popups doesn’t know if a user is moving the mouse to:
- close the tab,
- temporarily move to another tab, or
- open a new tab.
The exit popup can’t tell the difference. Imagine that a user is engaging in page parking to help her research a topic. She starts with a Google query, and then opens up several results into new tabs rapidly. The user begins moving through each tab, closing some that are irrelevant, but saving some to return to them later. Then, in the middle of this process, an exit popup suddenly appears, pressuring her to check out some different content or sign up for an email newsletter. The user thinks, “Wow, calm down! I was going to come back in two minutes!”
This exit popup on lifehack.org assumes users are leaving because they’re finished with the current piece of content, and makes a last-minute attempt to show related topics. Unfortunately, the popup is irritating if the user hasn’t finished reading the current piece of content.
Except when it’s in their best interest (preventing someone from closing a file without saving it, for example), we never recommend intentionally interrupting or annoying users.
The Get-Back-to-Me Browser Tab
This next pattern has nothing to do with what happens while you’re on the website, but instead it’s related to what happens when you’ve left. When a user navigates away from a website by visiting another browser tab, the site swaps the original page title with an attention-seeking message.
Ineffective when Commonly Used
Some designers might argue that this technique will delight users by catching their attention with something unique and unexpected. That delight (if it ever existed in the first place) will no doubt turn to frustration quickly if this pattern becomes widely used across the web. Page parking and parallel browsing will become quite difficult if your browser tabs resemble a bunch of journalists fighting for attention at a press conference.
Every website has a personality. The visual design, the interaction design, the copy, and tone of voice all contribute to how your users perceive your site and your brand. Needy patterns like the please-don’t-go popover and the get-back-to-me tab chip away at the presentation of a professional, confident website. They also damage users’ perceptions of credibility.
As a thought experiment, ask your brand manager whether “we’re desperate for attention” is one of the company’s stated brand values. If not, why signal such desperation to customers?
These kinds of tactics are often embraced and accepted based on better conversion performance in A/B tests. However, there’s a big tradeoff that comes with being needy and annoying — the degradation of your relationship with your users.
Prioritizing conversions or short-term metrics leads designers to pressure people into doing things they don’t actually want to do and can easily cross the ethical boundaries towards dark patterns. It’s time to reassess priorities and long-term goals: you may be getting a few extra clicks now, but in the long run you’re losing your users’ trust and respect. Nobody likes a needy website.