Modal Windows Are For Chumps

By Spicer Matthews

In web design I see modal windows misused repeatedly—though, admittedly, this is just one man’s opinion of improper use. (Or is it? read on...) But I should begin by clarifying three things. First, a modal window appears within another window, something like this: 

Second, while Cloudmanic products do use a few modal windows, most reflect poor judgement on our part and will be phased out over time. And third, there is a time and place for modal windows—some examples are described below. Nevertheless, I submit that 90% of the time modal windows are misused. 

Why Modal Windows Are (Usually) Bad

Modal windows are useful because they delimit a space in which the user performs one or two simple tasks. The unpleasant side effects, however, are often not worth it. Here is my short list of why you should use modal windows sparingly:

They’re clunky. Most developers neglect to think about different screen sizes with respect to content. For example, if the modal window content requires scrolling, the screen displays both the modal window scroll bar and the browser scroll bar and your wheel mouse behaves differently based on where the cursor is. Yes, the browser scroll bar can be disabled, but doing so has never felt natural to me.

They’re not mobile friendly. Modal windows are almost always difficult to manage on mobile devices. They’re slow to load and slow to hide. Unless the developer does tons of testing, the content can get wonky—such as when when the onscreen keyboard pops up.

They require a lot of developer time. Developing a modal window requires extra effort because the association between the parent page and the modal window page must be maintained. And developing modal windows for a modern ajaxy type web application is especially complex.

They’re disruptive and cause angst. The appearance and disappearance of a modal window disrupts the screen in a big way, forcing the user to refocus. And if, when the modal window disappears, users do not refocus on the correct area of the parent screen, they might wonder if anything even happened. Users need good visual cues to confirm that a change has occurred. The idea of modal windows causing Cloudmanic users even such micro forms of angst bothers me.

Be Wise With Your Modal Windows

Developers have a duty to their users to plan wisely. Steve Jobs is famous for asking his employees if whatever they were presenting to him was their best possible work. I know when I use a product with lots of modal windows the designer did not do his best work. Modal windows get the job done, but not often in the best possible way. 

I have observed that modal windows are often used when a site has not been fully information architected. Sure, stuffing something in with a modal window is easier than figuring out the best flow for the user, but a developer who cares about doing their best possible work would take the time to find a more user-friendly way to accomplish the same thing.

Think twice before using modal windows. Don’t be a chump!