Should You Warn Clients Against Using Popups on Their Website?

So you’ve just signed off another project with your latest clients and it’s one of your finest pieces of work, even if you say so yourself. The client is ecstatic (why wouldn’t they be?) and you’ve got a new favourite portfolio piece to wow future clients with.

That is until you pay said site a visit one day and you see your former clients has plastered popups all over the place. Before you’ve even scrolled past the hero section your screen your wonderful design is hidden by a full-screen popup – disaster. Your best piece of work has been turned into a UX nightmare, tarnishing your portfolio and annoying any number of visitors in the same process.

The question is, should you warn your clients against using popups on their website (or any other UX concerns for that matter)?


The endless debate over popups

The popup debate has been going on for years and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon. Essentially, it’s a question of UX design against marketing/lead generation and there’s no answer that can please both camps – you have to make some kind of compromise.

You’ll find plenty of support for using popups, normally from brands/marketers with some impressive conversion rates to show off. Blog titles like “How We Doubled Email Signups in 30 Days” are pretty common and they all make a compelling case for using popups.

Meanwhile, the UX purists will say they break just about every best practice in the UX handbook.

Should your clients use popups?

The case for using popups on any given website is actually pretty simple. If the number of profitable leads generated by a popup outweighs the negative impact on user experience, then there’s good reason for using it.

The problem is measuring the negative impact on user experience isn’t something you can do with 100% accuracy. What you can do, though, is set up event tracking in Google Analytics to see how many people convert after seeing the popup against how many close it and the number of people who leave the site after it appears. Again, this isn’t the most watertight test but it’ll give you a pretty good idea of whether a popup is benefiting a site or causing more harm than good.

There’s another problem, though. This tracking needs to be set up in the first place and then it needs to collect data, by which time you’ll be long out of the picture. So, whatever your opinions on using popups, you haven’t really got any evidence specific to each client about whether they’ll work for them or not.

Of course, there are tons of best practices for using popups and you can always offer your advice from a design expert’s point-of-view:

  • Offer something worth interrupting the user experience
  • Make it easy to exit your popups
  • Explore non-obtrusive formats – eg: banners, exit popups, etc.
  • Split test variations and pages with/without popups for comparison
  • Consider disabling popups for mobile – they increase loading times and can be difficult to exit
  • Disable them for people who have already converted/signed up
  • Don’t use popups on every page
  • Don’t conflict with other calls-to-action

That last one is really important. If you have a landing page designed to get people signing up to a free trial you don’t want to shove some email subscription popup in people’s faces. The main goal in this case is the free trial and nothing should get in the way of that. An exit popup tempting people with a different offer as they’re about to leave could have some value, but only after it’s clear the main conversion goal has failed.

Should you warn clients against using popups?


If you genuinely think using popups will be detrimental to your client’s website, then there’s nothing wrong with voicing your concern. I would recommend remaining as neutral as possible when giving this kind of advice, though, and give them an honest account of the pros and cons they come with. I tend to take the stance of “If you’re going to use popups, I strongly recommend..” and if I believe a client is better off without them, I make it politely clear.

You’ll find some clients are better suited to using them (eCommerce are a prime example) more so than others. Some pages on their website will have more potential for using popups than others as well – and I find it helps to offer a detailed analysis of each site in this regard.

Above all, I think you have to offer alternative approaches, too, because building an email list is important to every online brand – there’s no escaping that. Using AdWords remarketing, for example, is an effective way to keep interacting with former visitors but it’s no replacement for an email list your clients build for themselves.

Luckily, there are a number of popup alternatives in banners, call-to-action divs and off-site channels (eg: Twitter cards). Above all, your clients are going to need content that gives people the itch to sign up in the first place – and no popup (or alternative) will make up for shoddy content.