Posted by: Rowan | July 15, 2008

You ain’t going nowhere, sunshine

How embarrassing! There I was, blasting around the web looking stuff up – as you do – and I got outsmarted by a thing as simple as a browser. Moi?! ‘Fraid so.

“Good heavens, young fella!” as my mate Frandi would have said into his beer.

All I did was click on a link and expect it to work, dopey me. It didn’t – I just got a blank stare. So I tried again. And again, and again. Nothing happening. Naturally I became suspicious and dived into the source code to see what was going on. And there it was, one of my all-time faves: target="_blank".

What that means is that the link is going to open in a new browser window. Which it did (and again, and again and again) without me noticing. The reason I didn’t notice is that I use Firefox (heavily) because it’s so efficient at tabbed browsing and when I’m researching I tend to keep 10, 12, 20 browser windows open and just hop between the tabs. It’s so much easier than remembering where I found stuff, or going through the process of bookmarking it and then having to serially retrieve it – which I also do (del.icio.us is brilliant for it) but not for information that’s transient for me on the way from A to B.

But when you have a bunch of windows open like that the tabs won’t all fit on the screen – they scroll off to the right. If a link opens in a new window Firefox has a bad habit of opening up the tab way off to the right of the list (off the screen) and not saying anything. It should really take your focus straight across to the new tab, but it doesn’t. Oh well, it’s pretty good at everything else.

In hammering on the link until I got suspicious, I’d managed to open a bunch of new (identical) windows without noticing, getting more pissed off with each one that “didn’t work”, until I figured out my folly.

Mortified, I was, to be so badly outsmarted by a simple bit of everyday software.

Hang on! Did I say my folly? I should have said someone else’s folly – or lack of consideration, more like. They could have told me they were going to spring a surprise window on me.

I didn’t notice because I tend to hammer browsers to within an inch of their lives. What if I was blind and using an old screen-reader and couldn’t see that a new window had opened? Or if I just plain didn’t notice? My wife does this and then wonders why the Back button’s all greyed out and doesn’t work, and she can’t get back to where she came from. She can see, but she just doesn’t notice and I have to send the cavalry in.

That’s precisely why the WAI Guidelines on web accessibility say this about spawning new windows without telling people: Don’t!

To the purist, the fundamental model of the web is about linking between locations, not buying a new car every time I traverse the link over the hill into Wellington.

Why, why, why did they do that? I guess they did it because they didn’t want me to leave their site. Well actually, that’s what I wanted to do, wasn’t it? They even gave me a link to do it with! Mighty fine of them, but…

I guess the next time I go to the dealer to buy that new car to drive into Wellington, I better make sure they don’t lock the door behind me until I’ve bought one. There might not be one I like.

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