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When to force links to open in a new tab

People use their personal preference to dominate the debate around when to force links to open in a new tab, but it’s really all about use-cases and respecting the intranet or website user.

Do you prefer every link on your intranet, or on a website, to open in a new tab for you? So you don’t lose your place. OK, if so, can you imagine that some people prefer links just to open in the same window tab? Now, when it comes to designing intranet and web pages, should you, as the designer or page publisher, force links to open in a new tab or not? If your preference makes more sense to you, is that justification to impose it on everyone?

Well, let’s look at both preferences; they’re not equal. If you, the publisher, force links to open in a new tab you take away choice from your users. If you, as the publisher, leave links to open in the same window tab, you allow the user to make their own choice*. One approach reduces choices (and perhaps annoys / confuses people) and the other respects other people’s choice.

When shadowing people (during user research), you will sometimes see that people do not notice a new tab has opened, so they can be confused that they can’t go ‘back’, and they might be surprised at the number of tabs they have open by the end of the week!

There are 1.5 reasons to force links to open in a new tab

The first and best reason to force links to open in a new tab is to protect people’s work. When filling in a form, or inputting information in some way, you may want to provide links to supporting information, perhaps guidance and explanatory text, and you don’t want such ancillary links to make people lose their work with a click.

Opening such supporting info in a new tab preserves the user’s work, while they read the instructions or do their research in another tab. You’ll see some websites offer hints and tips for forms in little new windows or modal pop-ups. You may be able to use such little windows around important intranet forms, but I might guess launching new tabs is easier for you.

The second reason, which is only worth 0.5 in my book, is when linking to an external page or app. Now, again, this takes away the user’s choice, but I can see the logic if the link will take the person to somewhere really quite alien.

So, what does ‘external’ mean? Some digital workplace people might use ‘external’ to just mean anything outside of the current system – so a link on the intranet to an internal line-of-business app, or to a Word document (that opens in the browser), or to a separate ‘knowledge hub’ (e.g. for customer service people) will open in a new tab, just because it’s ‘off the intranet’.

Other digital architects might use a regular link for on-premises apps, like your people directory, but a new-tab link for an in-the-cloud app, like your expenses service. This makes sense from a tech structure perspective, but do end-users care about where their official company apps are hosted? I say ‘no’. An app is an app is an app.

A clearer case can be made for linking to websites with no direct relationship to your organisation. Something like Wikipedia or LinkedIn are clearly independent and external, so forcing links to them to open in a new tab makes some sense; you’re leaving ‘our digital estate’ and venturing ‘out there’.

How to show external links

Do as Wikipedia does. Using CSS (web style code), you can have any and every external link on your intranet display a little ‘arrow box’ icon. This can be done in CSS for the whole intranet, so that your individual page publishers don’t have to do anything clever. So long as you have control over the CSS, this is fairly easy to implement, although some internal links might get flagged as external for technical reasons, so you have to implement any solution with care.

I think it’s great to visually indicate that a link takes you outside of the intranet. I don’t think it’s necessary, but it’s a nice touch. A visual indicator gives people a clue about what will happen when they click (remember, all hyperlinks should be rich, and express their purpose / destination clearly) and gives savvy users the option to choose to open the link in a new tab.

How to force links to open in a new tab

Your CMS (content management system) should help you create and configure links as you craft your pages. So, as you add a link, you may see an option to ‘open in new window / tab’. Usually, ‘new window’ means ‘new tab’, so don’t worry.

If your website system or intranet software does not help you configure links, you can add a little code to your hyperlink tag. Insert target=”_blank” into the link tag. If you don’t know how to edit HTML (web code) then don’t try, but ask for help to learn as this little tip is easy.

I’m now wondering if JavaScript and CSS can do this automatically for the whole intranet, as with the ‘arrow-box’ visual indicator, above. Let me know if you’ve done such a site-wide thing.

When maybe not to force links to open in a new tab

I’ve explained that there are only 1.5 reasons to open links in a new tab (I look forward to being reminded about more reasons – please tweet me on @Wedge) so just a word on a terrible ‘new-tab’ option to avoid.

Navigation menus – y’know, the main site menu, which on intranets is often a megamenu or drop-down menu. So, yeah; navigation menus are to help people get around and in to your intranet or site. So it makes little sense to link to external websites from your main menu unless there’s very good reason.

If you do link to external sites from your main menu, please use the ‘arrow-box’ icon to visually indicate that the link will take you out. I have seen intranet users land on external websites and believe they are on the company intranet, and become confused.

I can see how a distinct menu, perhaps the far-right one, that only links to ‘useful external sites’ might be handy, but for me, an external link in your main drop-down navigation goes against the use-case.

I hope it’s obvious that there’s no reason to force-open new tabs from your drop-down menu unless the link goes to an external site.

People have strong opinions about navigation design and I admit there are exceptions that I can’t comprehensively cover here, but in general, you nav menu should lead people in to and around your intranet, and that’s that. Even an external app (like your cloud-based expense system) should have an intranet landing page to link to (if this makes no sense to you, talk to me about your intranet’s search experience, and the guidance pages for their cloud-based app).

tl;dr

This is not about your personal preference. Forcing links to open in a new tab takes away the choice from your intranet or website user. There can be a few cases where you should force-open a new-tab (or little window), to preserve the user’s work, but in general, people expect a link to open in the same window. Some people love using lots of tabs, and they can do so by just opening links in new tabs themselves*.

* I really hope you know how to open links in a new tab by choice – there a probably a few ways. ‘Right-clicking’ on a link brings up the little contextual menu from which you can then select ‘Open in the tab’. Or, you might prefer holding down the CTRL key on your keyboard just before you click the link with your mouse. (Yes, there are ways to do this on a tablet or phone too – just try holding or long-pressing a link.)

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