Opening links in new tabs – a poll

I have an interesting dilemma and I’d like to hear your thoughts.

I run two Discourse forums (this being one of them), and I have them both set to open external links on the same page. In the last two days, I’ve had one member from each ask me if I can change it to open them in new tabs.

I have it set as I currently do because accessibility best practices dictate that default link behaviour should be left alone, giving the user the right to make the decision.

I know that @mattymcg feels pretty strongly about opening on the same page because I used to frustrate him with my blog posts. :wink:

Opinions? What do you guys do?

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I tend to use the following approach:

  • If it’s a link to somewhere in the same app then open in the same window
  • If it’s a link to ‘follow-on’ reading (i.e. wiki with a linked topic) then open in the same window
  • If it’s something that a user will need to refer back to (i.e. help, or something they are being asked questions on) then open in a new tab/window
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A quick thought: How about giving an option for “open link in new tab” next to link just like how discourse shows the link click stat.

I have a seen lot of people who always open the link in new tab. For most of them, they don’t want to break the reading flow.

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So long as a link isn’t javascript then the user can always open in a new tab themselves.

Overriding a link with a target of blank is harder so ideally it should always be the same tab/window.

Unfortunately working for commercial sites I have always had to ignore this rule.

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I actually prefer a new tab because I am often still reading the initial page and want to keep access to that.


Hey there, @hawk,

I think I probably like @jaisonjustus’s suggestion the most. Sometimes you just have to do what the stakeholders tell you, and while I think the best practice is to leave the default behavior of links alone, swapping the behavior might make the content more cumbersome to consume but it’s no longer an accessibility issue in the programmatic sense. Screen readers can make sense of and know what to do with the link, but it does become sort of a pain in the neck to navigate by tabs and keystrokes to the new window.

So, you’re not going to fail a11y validation. And that’s good, because there are definitely exceptions. E.g., if you’re in the middle of a process (like filling out a form), links should probably open in a new window. You just want to make sure your choices are deliberate.

So, all that said, I think @jaisonjustus’s suggestion is really a pretty elegant way to navigate the politics. You could totally do this with a small JS script where – in terms of accessibility – the little icon is a button, and when the button is clicked it adds target=_blank to the link and then navigates to that link. If JS fails, or someone just clicks the regular link, you’re still opening in the same window.

Good suggestion!


P.S. Thanks for referencing by Links article :smile:

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I love the suggestion, but I’m not sure it’s feasible. I’ll chat with @Lukcha and report back.

Thanks for the feedback. :slight_smile:

Ps welcome @irreferential, great to have you on board.

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Hey @HAWK , et al.! Good discussion here!

My 2 cents (more questions than answers : )
I think best practices are always a good starting point, but best practices are a by nature a lowest common denominator. It takes the totality of the web and all of its varied users/ demographics/ states/ experiences/ strategies/ goals and distills it down into a black/white, yes/no answer that isn’t always the “best” solution for all instances.

If possible, the decision should be made from the standpoint of influencing the specific experience you are looking to improve. What is the experience level of the average user in this case? More advanced users/digital professionals are probably already creating their own click experiences (eg. Steve Crow’s comment).

So, would changing link target from self to blank help this audience achieve their goals or enhance the experience? Would it support the goals of the organization (eg. increase/improve engagement?) What about differentiating link function based on what the link does (like Jacqui Dow’s approach) or @jaisonjustus’s suggestion echoed by Irreferential… Even though both might be a new pattern to learn for some, could it benefit a majority of users (again based on audience, demo, etc.) experience?

It is always a good idea to start with “the rules”, but I also think rules are made to be broken… if there is a valid (hopefully measurable) reason and it makes sense to do so from a business, user, experience standpoint.

(sorry I couldn’t use everyone’s @ link… new users can only link to 2 ppl in a reply!

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Interesting. As you mentioned, I’m a fan of following best practices—I don’t believe they are a lowest common denominator. A best practice may be a compromise sometimes, but so is any design decision.

Obviously the decision to change the behaviour to move away from an agreed best practice for every user on the forum should be done for a good reason—two individuals requesting it isn’t a good reason.

I’d be curious whether the people who asked you to change the default link behaviour for the entire forum (or those who have commented above) are aware of how easy it is to take control of the link behaviour themselves. ie. if they knew that holding down Ctrl (PC) or Cmd (Mac) while clicking achieved this outcome. I’m not closely involved in screen reader functionality or the latest best practices in accessibility, but it sounds like we’re questioning the best practice itself. If there is good reason to do that, I’d love to hear from accessibility experts more qualified than myself. Otherwise, I’m a fan of following their lead and keeping with best practice.

I am a fan of giving an indication that a link is about to open in a new window though, e.g. with an accompanying icon.

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@feather What are your thoughts on this? Should default link behaviour be left alone in all cases or are there appropriate exceptions?

I find it hard to believe the original accessibility best practice is still to always open in the same window, maybe that was true before tabs existed, screens were much smaller and we were using 56kbit/s dialup.

Personally I find it very frustrating when my browser window is forcibly changed to something completely different.

For example this morning I was in a clients Wordpress admin area and clicked on a ‘renew licence link’, instead of opening a new tab or window it replaced the WP admin, forcing me to login again and use right click ‘open in new tab’

You can’t also use the browser back button if the previous screen involved any kind of form interaction.

It would be great to see some more research on this, but that is my 2cents :slight_smile:

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I 100% agree,

On the back of this does anyone know how often accessbility guidelines are updated? (This may require a new topic!)

I am one of the aforementioned users who asked about changing this! Funnily enough on a mac I use this keyboard shortcut a lot, but for some reason on a PC I just forget it’s there! I wouldn’t call myself a complete novice when it comes to PCs but I’m definintely not an expert user. I rarely use keyboard shortcuts in any apps on a PC (although mac I find them more intuitive) and I think that comes down to the fact I use a mouse on a PC but a trackpad on my mac laptop so my hands are closer to the keys.

I also find that on other websites I tend to use the right click on the mouse, but for some reason on here I don’t, and I think this is because I just expect it to open in a new tab ready to read later.

(I am a bit of an exception to most rules when it comes to computer use and I probably need to train myself into a different behaviour! :slight_smile: )

Navigating back and forth between multiple tabs using a screen reader is a pain. JAWS 17 on Internet Explorer 11 does not always consistently alert the user that a new tab has opened, or the language is sometimes inconsistent, or bouncing between the two using ctrl+shift+tab might actual trigger non-obvious screen-reader shortcuts – which sometimes overwrite other browser default shortcuts – rather than navigating elsewhere.

Some times the environment is changed, e.g., a user has JAWS 17 / Internet Explorer 11 in his or her office and – after a campus-IT thin-client update that changed the default browser to, say, something like Firefox – the screen-reader shortcuts for the different browser might be different.

Use of screen readers adds not just the complexity of navigating content without complete visuals, but a whole learning curve - which is why I wanted to respon.

It’s not that the best practice for accessibility (or other user experiences) is to do one or the other, it’s that the best practice is to leave the default behavior of the browser alone.

The convention is key. The convention may not be good or ideal for every site on the planet, but making a design decision that obviates that convention must be deliberate because what may be convenient for a vocal minority may have weird, complicated consequences for other users who you don’t think about.

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This might be a silly question but would there be an alternative way of coding a ‘link’ so that the default behaviour was to open in a new tab?

Yes, with an HTML attribute called target="_blank" this is possible.

I’d much prefer the new tab as well. There often are links to great articles that I wanna read, and come back to leave a comment. New tab would just make it easier.

Ok, in absence of the expert opinion of @feather, I’m going to listen to my audience.

Let’s run a poll.

  • I would like external links on this site to open in a new tab by default
  • I would like to follow accessibility best practice and open links in the same page by default

0 voters

This is changing the default behaviour, I didn’t know if there was a different html element that could be used where the default behaviour is to open in a new tab?

“Personally I find it very frustrating when my browser window is forcibly changed to something completely different.”

I totally agree with this, but hey that would be my bias.

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