Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Who Still Uses Pop-ups?

Every month, I pay bills. I know, I’m special, right? Like most people, I pay as many bills as possible online instead of having to mail a check and pray that it gets there. There’s just too many reasons to do so, and instant confirmation of my payment is one of them.

However, there are three bills I have that do something questionable: Their payment dialog is in a pop-up window for some reason. Is this 2002? What’s the benefit of popping-out to another browser window when the payment could either happen within the current or a new tab?

The three offenders are:
  • — where I make my car payment
  • — where I pay my water and trash utilities
  • — where I pay my student loans
Like most computer users, my browser blocks pop-up windows by default, a feature designed to stop annoying advertisements and potential security breaches. I don’t even consider it as an option, I just accept the pop-up-free the world the way that it is.

Pop-up windows are so distracting and aggravating that they’ve been phased out of our daily lives, and they don’t really do anything helpful; they just move content into another window. So why does anyone use them?

On the rare occasion that someone wanted content to show up in a specifically-sized window without messing up the size of the user’s browser, a pop-up window could be useful. I used a popup window like this for a music page I did years ago in which I needed the browser window to be exactly 640x480. (Interestingly, my modern browser doesn’t block this pop-up. I guess it’s not spammy enough.)

So what happens each month as I log into these three websites to pay my bill? I click on something which will begin the payment process or is a step along the way, and nothing happens. I wait, because I assume my Internet connection is lagging momentarily. Then I click again, and still nothing happens. So I click five times out of frustration, then I remember that the page is trying to open a pop-up window. I have to go into my browser preferences and disable this feature, then voila! The payment popup opens, and I can give them money.

What is the purpose of this pop-up? I can only assume that it’s one of these three things:
  1. The web designer still thinks that this is a cool effect to use, even in 2011, and wants specific dimensions for the payment process. In the case of Kia, they only process car payments if the interest rate is 0%, which is the rate on my car loan. This is very few customers, so they probably don’t bother to update their page very often. NWPSC is a super-crap utility website charging a whopping $2.75 per transaction (obviously not spent on web designers), and Fedloan is a government entity—and we all know why that website is crappy.
  2. The designer intends to block navigational tools in payment processes. This is probably the most likely situation. We’ve all seen the “Do not hit your browser’s back or refresh button!” warnings, and the easiest way to avoid accidental or even intentional navigational clicks during a posting payment is by disabling them entirely—an effect that can only be achieved via a popup window, where a new browser window is opened with specific characteristics. Still not a good excuse for using something that everyone blocks.
  3. They intend to stop you from being able to make a payment so that your payments are late and they can justify increasing your interest rate and/or charging late fees. I doubt this is the case, because a broken website equals lost money and increased customer service requests.
Here’s the funny part: I only know that these websites use these pop-ups because I had to troubleshoot to figure out why the payment buttons weren’t working. Any other time a link on a website doesn’t respond, I just move on, but in this case, I had to get it working. There are probably a lot more websites that still use pop-ups than I actually know about.

In a world where “pop-up blocker” is as ubiquitous a phrase as “credit card,” why are companies still using pop-up windows? If it’s a safety issue, website developers need to allow customers to make their own mistakes; it’s the only real way that they’ll learn. The process of viewing a website should be as simple as possible, or traffic will flow elsewhere.

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