For most web designers it’s a clear no brainer – an external link opening in a new tab ensures that the customer isn’t taken away from their client’s website. We recently came across a concept that has forced us to think twice when setting an external link to open in a new tab.

A step too far for beginners

From the perspective of a novice web user, surfing the web could be comparable to turning the pages of a book, you can easily navigate backwards through recently visited pages to see how you got here using the back button. Opening a new tab, or starting a new book, will take the user away from this navigation. Indeed, to the novice web user it may seem as though the back button has simply stopped working.

Accessibility alert

Web designers (advanced users by definition) will know to click back to the source tab to access this navigation again but will rarely consider that not all users interact with a website through a mouse or track pad. Some users may be using assistive technology such as screen readers or may use only the keyboard, in which case navigating between new tabs and windows becomes a whole new laborious process.

Patronising the advanced user

It is not only novice web users that may find this new tab pre-set a hindrance. I personally prefer to manually select ‘Open Link in New Tab’ for external links I want to visit next. But once I have finished viewing the content on the page, I may click on an external link with the intention of visiting that link within the current tab. Now if it opens in a new tab, I tend to close the source tab right away – rendering the purpose of opening the external link in a new tab pointless.

Clashing with web browser settings

Other advanced users may have personal web browsing preferences. If a user prefers external links to open in a new window, it may end up getting lost or hidden behind the current window.

Mobile browsing

The increasing ease with which a user can browse the web via mobile makes it a channel web designers cannot afford to ignore. The tab experience on mobile is nowhere near as friendly compared to the desktop browser. Often, the mobile browser will open the external tab in a new window, and the mobile user will find themselves with an endless backlog of websites running in the background.

Just give me the choice!

Dave Woods, who brought the issue to our attention rightly points out that there are a number of ways for web users to save a website to come back to later, including web browser bookmarks, but ultimately whether the external link should open in the existing or new tab is a matter of personal preference. I think the advance user deserves to be given the choice.