How and when to use pop-ups correctly

Curbing our addiction to grabbing our users’ attention

Try this template
Jonathan Anderson
minutes reading time
Skip to section:
This is some text inside of a div block.

Pennywise, pound foolish

We all know the feeling: Something pops up on our screens, and our eyes jump to it.

There’s a satisfaction in being nimble enough to close the pop-up on the first attempt, but it becomes an irritant when it reappears.

Our eyes are trained for movement, but snatching our attention comes at a cost. It distracts users’ attention, pulling them away from whatever task they came to your site to do. Counterintuitively, movement makes our messages both more obvious and easier to dismiss.

Notifications, guides, and hotspots are like automated emails or salt: best applied in small doses. In excess, they ruin the experience.

When do pop-ups fail us?

Too often, we judge success too narrowly. Did a user complete a specific flow, for example?

What matters is our users’ holistic experience in our product. Are they being bombarded by too many messages? Are they less receptive to each incremental notification? Do they trust our brand less?

Take a look at a few common challenges with pop-ups that are rarely addressed:

  • Priority: Our users rarely fall neatly into a single segment with a single need. By deciding who sees what, we’re telling our users what should be important to them at a particular moment, when they might be interested in something else entirely.
  • Sequencing: Often, we set up our flows as a sequence of steps and trigger them to begin when a user first hits a new page. But, if we’ve learned anything from heatmaps, users want to chart their own course and often quit out of a multi-step sequence.
  • Conflicts: With both software providers and employer teams applying their own sets of in-app messages, users may be getting hit from all sides, increasing the likelihood that pop-ups will conflict with one another.
  • Irritation: Finally, it’s very difficult to measure the fine line between a useful and an irritating notification. No two users are alike, yet most see the same in-app messages, and it can be hard to know when it’s too much.

Given the challenges, it’s not surprising that the UX teams who care the most about holistic user experience use the fewest pop-ups.

So, when is the right time to pop up?

A little contextual guidance is a great help in many situations. Pop-ups succeed when they alert us to something that is urgent, important, and would otherwise be missed.

Here are a few good examples where it makes sense to add a pop-up:

  • An irreversible choice: Is a user attempting to delete your account information? It’s a great time to double-check if she really wants to say goodbye.
  • An urgent notification: Is the user about to be late for an important meeting? Is your software having an outage? These are alerts that users will want to see, immediately.
  • A big change from previous: Did you recently change where things are within your user interface? Why not tell folks that yes, indeed, things now look a little different?

What do the above have in common? Very little, other than the fact that they’re all relatively extreme and rare.

What we didn’t include are some of the most common use cases for pop-ups today. Here are a few common ones that most likely don’t need a notification:

  • A new product tour: If your native user experience doesn’t sufficiently help the user understand what do, a splash screen would be a better choice here.
  • A feature announcement: While you might be ready to let the world know about the great product your team has launched, there’s no saying if this particular user is ready to hear it.
  • A welcome message: Of course, you want to welcome your new users, but an email is a way to do that without blocking them from accessing your product.

Managing attention

While popups are an appealing way to get attention, remember that your users’ experience should always come first. Too many pop-ups and you risk users tuning out completely, ignoring even the important ones because the notifications have become noise.

A good rule of thumb is to limit pop-ups to once per session. So, map out touchpoints along the user journey, and then prioritize ruthlessly! Limit pop-ups to critical information, like a reminder to upgrade.

By disabling excessive pop-ups and applying discipline when deploying critical ones, you’ll avoid information overload and grab users’ attention when it matters most.


Select the template used on this article and customize it based on your users needs.

Try this template

Turn your ideas into UX today

Get a custom walkthrough of Candu

Request free trial