Making Modal Windows Better For Everyone

To you, modal windows might be a blessing of additional screen real estate, providing a way to deliver contextual information, notifications and other actions relevant to the current screen. On the other hand, modals might feel like a hack that you’ve been forced to commit in order to cram extra content on the screen. These are the extreme ends of the spectrum, and users are caught in the middle. Depending on how a user browses the Internet, modal windows can be downright confusing.

Modals quickly shift visual focus from one part of a website or application to another area of (hopefully related) content. The action is usually not jarring if initiated by the user, but it can be annoying and disorienting if it occurs automatically, as happens with the modal window’s evil cousins, the “nag screen” and the “interstitial.”

However, modals are merely a mild annoyance in the end, right? The user just has to click the “close” button, quickly skim some content or fill out a form to dismiss it.

Well, imagine that you had to navigate the web with a keyboard. Suppose that a modal window appeared on the screen, and you had very little context to know what it is and why it’s obscuring the content you’re trying to browse. Now you’re wondering, “How do I interact with this?” or “How do I get rid of it?” because your keyboard’s focus hasn’t automatically moved to the modal window.

This scenario is more common than it should be. And it’s fairly easy to solve, as long as we make our content accessible to all through sound usability practices.

For an example, I’ve set up a demo of an inaccessible modal window that appears on page load and that isn’t entirely semantic. First, interact with it using your mouse to see that it actually works. Then, try interacting with it using only your keyboard.

Making Modal Windows Better For Everyone

[Source: Smashing Magazine]