Making popups less annoying: the missing variable.

Imagine reading something interesting from your favorite website. As you’re enjoying the content, a pop up appears on screen hiding the content you were reading below it and asking you to sign up. I don’t know about you, but this gets on my nerves everytime. This popup feature, whose adoption is becoming more widespread by the day has something fundamentally wrong with its current implementation. These pop ups are the topic of this article.

So, why is this important to discuss and why is it bad? To understand why, let us look at the purpose of a pop up first, followed by how there’s a mismatch between its implementation and its intended purpose. The latter section of this article will look at what I think is the missing piece required to make these popups even more effective while reducing the annoyance caused.

Popups are still a thing?

So why are popups still a thing if a majority of internet users find them annoying and more annoying? It deals with their purpose. The sole purpose of these cursed popups is to, this is completely true, retain you as a customer of their website for the long run.

What happens when you’re reading an article on a webpage with ads on the sides? You tend to not focus on them and ignore their presence. This is called banner blindness and is caused by us focussing only on what matters the most to us: the content in the middle. Once you’re done reading, you leave the website. As an owner of said website, I’d like to retain you as my customer for longer than just one article’s worth of time.

To do this, I have a few commonly used options:

Include a form at the end of the article to allow you to enter your contact information and receive alerts when something new is on the website
    • If this form is placed on the sides, banner blindness strikes and it goes unnoticed.
    • If its placed at the bottom, there’s a huge possibility it’ll be ignored again.
Have social media buttons hoping that you’ll hit one of them and get linked that way.
    • This is more subtle but is not as good a CTA as a form field.
Use a popup to distract you from the article, grab your attention and force you to look at fields asking for your contact information.
    • This solves the problem of both the form and the social media buttons since it forces you to attend to it to continue enjoying the website’s content.
    • Although effective, it introduces the problem of being annoying – A big drawback.

Despite this annoyance, results from tests have shown that these popups are actually successful at getting you to become customers of websites. (see, see and see)

There are many articles (like this and this) to help you understand what the do’s and don’ts of pop up implementation are. Here are a few recommendations from them:

  • Prominently display the X button.
  • Don’t use generic language and messages in pop ups.
  • Use cookies to tailor popups to that page.
  • Offer real value.
  • Be unobtrusive.
  • Fade windows behind the pop up to prevent distracting from it’s content.

All this is solid advice, but it still doesn’t solve the issue of being over-the-top annoying. Remember the mismatch between popup implementation and intended purpose I mentioned earlier? Here’s a good way to solve it.


As with many elements and designs on the screen, context of use matters. What I mean by context matters can best be illustrated and understood through example use cases.

** TL;DR:  to directly read how to deal with the mismatch, skip to below the image.
Case 1

Imagine you’re visiting a website for the first time. You still don’t even know what’s on the website. As soon as the page loads and you’re about to find out what the website is about, you’re presented with a popup asking you to enter your email ID to get more similar content. What content? I haven’t even seen what you have to offer. Naturally, you get annoyed, close the popup and the website just lost a potential customer.

This is similar to a waiter/waitress asking what you’d like to order immediately after you’re seated at the restaurant and haven’t even seen the menu yet. Not the most pleasant of experiences right?

Case 2

Imagine you’re visiting a website for the third time or even the fourth. This could be because you liked its content. You click on an article and begin reading. A few small scrolls later, you’re presented with a popup asking you to subscribe. This again, is annoying since it disrupted your activity while doing something you like, in a place you liked. So, there is a high probability that you’ll close the popup and the website loses a potential customer.

Now this is more like the annoying salesman at your preferred clothes store. He knows you’ve come here a few times before but still bugs you to enter your details for newsletters when you’ve clearly said no before.

There are more cases like the ones above like a popup appearing when you’re about to close the tab or like those that appear when you click links (often associated with being spam or ads). I specifically chose the above two since they’re the worst culprits and also widely adopted implementations.

Pop up types
Different popup options provided by a 3rd party service.


** How to deal with this mismatch

I think you now get a good idea on what the mismatch is. These popups don’t align well with the customer’s expectation and their associated mental models. Below is my take on solving this issue (All of this is context sensitive so use them thoughtfully):


Treat websites showing articles, images or videos consumers consume leisurely like a mall with window shoppers.

Use form fields mid article so that you don’t disrupt their flow but also bring the form to their attention. This is similar to banners placed on the floor at eye level in shopping malls. You walk along looking at it but aren’t disturbed or annoyed by it. They sure do catch your attention though.


Treat e-commerce websites like a clothes store.

People are interested in buying something if they cared to enter your store. All they need is a little motivation and encouragement to convert their desires into purchases. Isn’t it very effective when you’re looking at a nice shoe you’d like to buy and the salesperson tells you just in time that there’s a 15% discount if you sign up to their rewards program? This might be motivation enough to make you buy that shoe as the timing was perfect. Similarly, when people are browsing through products on your websites, tailor your promotional and detail requesting popup to what is being searched and time it right. Not in the beginning when they have yet to see what you’ve got to offer, but sometime after they’ve started searching. If I’ve browsed through more a few items, I’m probably looking to buy something. Now would be a good time to pop up a coupon or something like that to enable the conversion.


Treat information websites like a customer care hotline.

If I’m reading something important like how to change a tire or how to jumpstart a car battery, I possibly am in a tense situation where that info is absolutely needed right now. Don’t give the user a pop up when reading it. It just annoys, angers and frustrates an already frustrated human. Show the content damn it! The same can be said for many other important topics related to medical conditions, medicines, recipes, maintenance etc. These “high stakes” topics and websites are not the place for annoying popups. A good and effective method to implement popups for these websites is when you’re about to close the browser tab. The fact that you took the time to actually close the tab and not the entire browser itself indicates that the situation is not as tense and this is a good time to ask if they enjoyed the article and would like to subscribe.

Hey, there’s a reason 911 call operators start with “911 Whats your emergency” instead of going “911 want to give me your name and phone number before accessing this service?”.

That takes care of most website types. This was intended to only be a starting point, to get you thinking about your content, your visitors, their expectations and the context of visit. If you take these factors into account before using a 3rd party to simply deliver popups, maybe your conversion rates will jump even more than expected but this time, without annoying your customers.

I find it surprising how such a powerful conversion tool had such little thought behind its implementation. Hopefully, you learned something new and interesting. Now, if you’d like to read more articles like this where I share what I learn and understand, do subscribe(No, you won’t get a popup when you leave haha!).

Until next time, cheers!

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