1. We had this debate for our own intranet. It’s Sharepoint so here’s what I set:
    – links to Office/PDF docs open in new window
    Why? Many people clicked on the office doc link but when they were finished closed the browser by mistake so had to enter the intranet again. Resaearch showed us that this was a problem.

    – links to other applications/external web sites open in new window
    Why? Security mostly. Our intranet is password controlled and so are other applications on different platforms. Different passwords on different systems sometimes caused an issue.

    And because we have intranet passwords we want people to keep the intranet open for them to use so that’s why we have new windows opening.

  2. Sandy Blair

    Also, links that are inside a workflow or application, for example to read reference policies.

    It would be good if we could depend on the back button getting you to your form in the exact state that you left it, but this is often not the case. There’s nothing worse that half filling in a form – then nipping out to another page to check some detail and then nipping back to find you’ve just lost your work.

    Of course, for this reason its usually a bad idea to have links at all in the middle of a form and some in context help is better, but depending on the information this may not be possible. If you must put in a link state clearly it opens a new window. Oh and never ever break a users ability to right/middle click that link.

  3. From observation I’ve discovered that many of our users are not familiar or comfortable with tabbed browsing and sometimes have trouble navigating multiple browser windows.

    Of course, many users also aren’t familiar with the “Recent pages” option when clicking on the “Back” button in their browser. This gets to an issue of general technical proficiency.

    I easily forget that my comfort with web browsers, tabs, shortcuts and efficiency tricks is uncommon. “Better” is relative and if it doesn’t match users’ behaviors, then it’s not helping.

    I guess unless we’re going to train all our users on using browser tabs we should follow Step Two’s suggested default of never opening links in new windows/tabs.

  4. Jonathan

    This is not just a usability issue; it’s also about accessibility.

    The importance of getting this new window issue right was brought home to me when I visited the Shaw Trust, a UK-based charity, who employ people with a range of disabilities to complete accessibility tests on intranets.

    A blind tester clicked on a link that opened a new window. Using screen reader software they could understand the content of the page but, importantly, when they used the voice command ‘back’, there was no back available given it was a new window. This was tremendously disorientating and confusing for several minutes until the tester figured it out.

    The solution proposed was that if you must open a new window (for an application maybe, or for other aesthetic and usability reasons), you must label the link correctly.

    ie. Expenses System becomes Expenses System (Opens new window)

    In itself, that’s clumsy which is why I always choose to avoid the new window issue by keeping as much content as I can in the same window instance.

    • James Robertson

      @Jonathan, the accessibility argument is a powerful one for not using new windows! Unfortunately, many organisations pay little attention to their accessibility obligations regarding their intranet (and not much more for their public facing websites)…

  5. Ann K

    I disagree that all external links should open in the same browser window. My work involves maintaining an organisation’s intranet. Our policy states to open external websites in a new browser window and I support this 100 per cent. On the other hand, I also support links to documents, such as, Word and Excel that open in the same browser window.

    The usability challenge is when the external website does not open in a new window. In this case, you, delve deeply into an external website, immersing yourself in information, only to lose your original starting point. This is extremely annoying when having to find your way back. The quickest and easiest way back is to close the browser window, that is, if the link to the external website did open in a new browser window.

    In my work environment, the external website is just for additional information. Considering we are not at the start of the intranet/internet age, I would like to think that our users are web savvy and can close a browser window after they have found the information needed.

    • James Robertson

      @Ann, I agree there is no one right answer on this. In terms of staff getting lost however – the most used button is always the back button. Whether this is good or bad philosophically, it does mean that people can “find their way back”. There’s no evidence that staff build up a mental map, so “lost” may be less of a consideration.

  6. I too have seen the frustrations of the “Open in New Window” situation. Not just opening links to other webpages, but also in opening documents through other applications that leave rogue windows behind (depending on browser and version).

    Before the average user knows what’s happening they can have two or three intranet windows open and can start completing multiple tasks in different windows. It’s an easy way to lose information when you attempt to close one window, but accidentally close and lose everything.

    Having also worked closely with a number of UK Public Sector organisations, the single window method is also imperative in following the DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) standards they are required to adhere to.

    My advice would be to ensure internal links always remain in the same window, while external links open in a new window (clearly illustrated to the user)

  7. Louise Hewitt

    There are strong arguments here for both approaches, but essentially all boil down to the user’s understanding of what is happening.

    Good usability requires the following:
    1. Anticipate the user’s expectations
    This is best achieved through research into the target user and the usage context.
    2. Manage the user’s expectations
    This is achieved through careful interface design and behaviours that both explain and afford the activities occuring
    3. Mitigate against of expecation/goal
    This includes error messaging, good navigation that enables users to understand where they are and how to move about etc.

    In this scenario, the expectations of users are largely unpredictable across the general public, but within an organisation that we can assume has a legacy system, the way things are already don (if it is consistent) will be a strong influence on expecations. So if the current intranet practice is to open apps, docs or external sites in a new window, then most people will expect that to happen when they go to work tomorrow too.

    However you choose to resolve this issue, ensuring the users understand what’s occuring is critical. Does the link state that the destination is an external page, a document or an application? Does the design of the page coherently express the relationship between the source and destination?

    There is much at stake when you open in the same window and deny the users the escape route of using the ‘back’ button to return. Mitigating against unmet expectations needs to be supported. Think of an online banking system: before moving to a new area, users are prompted to confirm they want to leave the system. Pop-up messages are annoying, but can be preferable to sending users down blind alleys.

    Essentially, bringing all the content within the intranet is ideal – I’ve seen too much critical content housed in word documents, excel spreadsheets and vanity sub-sites that could be better placed in HTML format on an intranet where it could be effectively managed, discovered (through search indexes and navigation) and accessed by alternative technologies.


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Published September 28, 2010

James Robertson
James Robertson is the Managing Director of Step Two, the global thought leaders on intranets, headquartered in Sydney, Australia. James is the author of the best-selling books Essential intranets, Designing intranets and What every intranet team should know. He has keynoted conferences around the globe. (Follow him on Twitter)

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