Lightbox or New Window?

I’m sure many of you by this stage have either heard of Lightboxes or have already attempted to implement them on your own website. Lightboxes have replaced “tabbed browsing” as the fresh alternative to opening a new window. This post will give a quick pros and cons list of Lightboxes and discuss both the everyday frustrations and pleasures they bring. In my next post I will advise the best times and places to use Lightboxes based on what I have discussed here, because contrary to what you may read further down, there is a place for them.

A word of warning, if you’re an avid fan of Lightboxes you may want to close your eyes now…

The overwhelming number of reasons to not use Lightboxes surely disheartens even the most passionate fans. By my count, Lightboxes are down 2-10 to opening a new window… Not off to the best start then.

Lightbox or New Window? image Table3Lightbox or New Window?

Starting off with the cons (so we can end on a sweet note) Lightboxes are both immovable and modal. This means that if a user wants to open multiple links at once to run a comparison as I often do, this is impossible. What often happens to me though, is I do want to open a Lightbox but it blocks out what I want to compare it to on the regular page. “Open a new window” however does not suffer these issues as they can be moved, minimised and often you can interact with the original page.

Probably the biggest issue any SEO-conscious webmaster would have with Lightboxes is that they cannot be bookmarked but more critically, have no search engine crawlability. This means that your users will be unable to find any information you have stored in your Lightbox and worse still, on the off chance they do find it, there is no way of directly bookmarking the Lightbox. From personal experience I can tell you how awkward it is to send a link to a friend and have to add “click the link ⅔ of the way down the page” to my email as it’s near-impossible to link directly to the exact part of information located on a Lightbox.

A major issue faced by novice web-users is that Lightboxes operate in a different way to regular web-browsing. For the novice, it means yet another system to learn and navigate. My grandfather recently acquired an iPad (his first steps online) and while he is making good progress he would never figure out a Lightbox (at this stage I haven’t even told him about tabbed browsing – each time I see him I close his 40-50 open tabs…). My point is that novice users struggle enough with regular web browsing.

So while a major issue for novice web-users is the change in operation, for more experienced users there are equal frustrations – the main one being suddenly the ‘back’ button no longer does as it always has. Rather than simply removing the Lightbox as we expect, it actually takes you back to the page before the page which contains the Lightbox. This is a real concern for anyone hoping to keep potential customers/readers on your site and may account for a low ‘average time on website’ figure in your analytics. Imagine someone Google’s your company and from that search enters your site. If a Lightbox appears and the user accidentally pushes ‘back’, they will be taken back to Google’s search results – which for me personally would be reason enough to not return to that site.

Lightboxes further suffer from often being “too” pretty with their animations etc  that it takes an eternity to actually load. Nothing frustrates me more than a slow fade in for every bit of data or picture that I want to see – It’s right up there with the Powerpoint individual letter fly-in animation. It is largely due to this that Lightbox struggles to encourage long-term usage.

Finally, and perhaps an ever-increasing problem are the compatibility issues Lightboxes have. The main one being on mobile devices. Lightboxes just don’t play nice with many mobile devices, obviously a pressing matter as more and more people browse the web on mobile devices. A more minor aspect is that users who disable javascript won’t be able to view your Lightboxes either (however there is a fix – have the link point to a real page, then use javascript to prevent the link from opening and instead open a lightbox). This may also fix some of the issues with mobile devices as well, however it just means more work for you, the webmaster, having to manage content on two locations as opposed to one.

Well, you’ve survived my rant. Just to help even up the score I’ll give the positive comments a larger font.

There really are only two reasons why you’d consider using a Lightbox over opening a new window, however both are critical. The first is Lightboxes offers a cleaner more professional look than opening a new window. Whilst this is purely based on preference, the general consensus is that Lightboxes look better. The second is perhaps the biggest overlooked benefit: it shows the selected content instantly. With many people opening multiple tabs and windows it can often be a decent amount of time before they actually view the selected link. With Lightboxes however there isn’t this problem as the content opens on the same page.

In my next post I’ll discuss How To Use Lightboxes On Your Website. Be sure to leave your own comments on the value of Lightboxes below!

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