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Popup Ads Are Terrible, and They're Even Worse for the Blind

Most sites still don’t do popups correctly, because many developers don’t even realize that blind people are using their websites.

There are lots of conversations about the lack of diversity in science and tech these days. But along with them, people constantly ask, "So what? Why does it matter?" There are lots of ways to answer that question, but perhaps the easiest way is this: because a homogenous team produces homogenous products for a very heterogeneous world.

This column explores the products, research programs, and conclusions that are made not because any designer or scientist or engineer sets out to discriminate, but because the "normal" user always looks exactly the same. The result is products and research that are biased by design.


I don't need to explain to most people that popup ads are a nuisance. Even the man who invented them thinks so. But there's another reason to reject the popup: they can completely derail anybody with vision issues trying to use your web page.

Let's start with the pop-up experience for a sighted person: you're trying to read some article, and something appears on the page. It's probably asking you to subscribe to a newsletter, or buy a subscription. If it's a decent pop-up, you then spend a few seconds trying to find the tiny little x so you can close it.

But not all pop-ups are this humane. There are popups with no x, popups that hijack the entire screen, pop-ups whose only remedy is to completely close the tab or even entire window and start again. For people with low vision, pop-ups that seem totally reasonable to you, are more like this latter scenario.

There are two kinds of popups that we're going to lump together here. There's the popup that appears as a whole new window, and the one that appears within a webpage, on top of the content itself. Both are annoying for those who can see them, but they're a nightmare for those who can't. And while there's a huge amount of information out there for designers to teach them how to program their popups in an accessible way, most sites still don't do it correctly, because many developers don't even realize that blind people are using their websites.

A screenshot of a number of very terrible popup ads on a sports streaming website

This is bad.

First things first: yes, people who are blind or have low vision can and do use the internet every day. Those with vision impairments access the web in a number of ways, but the most common interfaces are screen readers and magnification systems. Screen readers are systems that "read" the contents of the webpage to the user. These are used mostly by those who are completely blind, and rather than using a mouse, screen readers allow users to click on things using keystrokes. Magnification systems zoom pages to several times their normal size, so users can read each word or even character one by one.

In both cases, popup ads can wreak havoc. Let's start with folks using a magnification system. Imagine browsing the web at 16 times its normal size. You're already reading each section piece by piece, and then all of a sudden a popup appears. If you're lucky, the popup makes itself known somehow. But if you're zoomed into a different area of the page, you might not even know that a popup has even happened.

Crista Earl, the director of web operations at the American Foundation for the Blind, described the frustration, saying, "After five minutes of fishing around, you discover you're not in the article, you're in some other thing, and you realize a popup has come up."

"You're stuck navigating through and hearing 'links, log in, get free stuff!, img02356 dot png' over and over without realizing what's going on."

Once you figure that out, you then have to find that tiny little x to close out the popup, so you can go back to what you were trying to read. And, assuming you manage all that, you often wind up at the top of the page again, rather than where you were when the popup appeared, which means having to scan the site again piece by piece to find where you left off.

Those who use screen readers often have similar issues. Popups that don't come up in a new window are often appended to the bottom of the code for the page, which means that the screen reader won't tell you it's there until it gets to the very bottom of whatever page it's trying to read. "So when this happens, you're stuck navigating through and hearing 'links, log in, get free stuff!, img02356 dot png' over and over without realizing what's going on," said the illustrator almondette, who has limited vision and often uses a screen reader.

Here's a video of what the Nautilus website looks and, more importantly, sounds like with a screen reader. Note that when I navigate to the ad the screen reader is silent, because the ad hasn't been coded to talk to the reader at all. Imagine you're just hearing this page, and you're getting nothing at all. (A note, I'm not singling out Nautilus for any particular reason here. This video could have been made of hundreds of media sites. Nautilus was simply the one I was reading earlier today.)

On top of all of that, many popups aren't coded with a dismiss button. Sighted users have to hunt down the tiny X or the "dismiss" area on the popup, but for those who use a keyboard to navigate the web rather than a mouse, these ads are often un-dismissable, because the programmer has not coded a dismiss key into the ad. This is the case in the Nautilus video above.

Jim Allen, the accessibility coordinator at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said that with these in-window popups it can just become a guessing game. "It becomes like the game of Myst, where you just had to click on things to try and figure it out," he told me. "And what generally happens, unless the person really really really has to be on that page, they're done. It's like, I don't have time to deal with this."

Because of all this, these ads can indeed change people's behavior. Earl, who uses a screen reader, said that she no longer books flights on JetBlue, because a few years ago the company changed its interface, making it nearly impossible for her to use. "I could walk to Burbank quicker than I could have booked a flight on their site," she said. "So yes, there are lots of websites I avoid just because I know I'm not going to get them to work."

Almondette said that she uses ad blockers to help her deal with the unseen popups, and she'll think twice before clicking on certain sites who deploy the styled popups (often asking people to join a newsletter) that she can't always see. "I'm wary of certain news or blog sites because I'm worried they'll ask me to join the mailing list (no, I do not want to and never will join a mailing list, I don't care how many times you make me click the 'no thanks, I hate fun' link)," she said.

But in some cases, you can't avoid a website that isn't designed for you. Earl told me about a site she has to use for work that uses popups that happen within the page. "So now I've learned that when I hit this thing I need to go to the bottom and read backwards, so if I go to the bottom and read backwards I'll find the thing," she said.

She only learned that after struggling to figure out why she couldn't get the site to work a few times. And there are tons of websites and services that don't work with screen readers at all—they're either completely silent, or the important text isn't coded for a screen reader to actually read aloud.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires certain websites to be accessible: sites for public schools and government agencies. But that doesn't mean those sites always are. A Seattle school district was just sued for using a homework portal that a blind parent couldn't access. The presentation software Prezi isn't accessible either, even though it's in use by schools and government agencies all over the country. Slack, the darling messenger app used by places like NASA, only recently updated its systems to work with screen readers.

And sites that aren't under the umbrella of ADA don't have to be accessible by law. This very website, in fact, doesn't do a great job of tagging its images for screen readers to read.

A screen magnifier for Wikipedia. Image: Lgd/Wikipedia

Almondette said that even when places do use these alt-tags for popups (or anywhere), they're often extremely unspecific to the point of being useless. Take a Tumblr post where the alt-text is "Picture of a computer."

In some situations, that might be fine, but "Tumblr is a highly sensory experience, so in the case of an image post, we'd probably want to type 'Image of a laptop computer. It has a light gray aluminum body with a glossy black bezel surrounding the screen. The keyboard keys are black. The laptop is set atop a blue table.' In this case, pictures aren't necessarily a thousand words, but those words add up," she said.

Aside from making your site usable to more people, there's also a business argument to be made for making your popups accessible. Most popups are ads, but the vast majority of the time a blind user won't even know what the ad is for. Screen readers rely on programmers including tags on images to explain what they are, but for ads the text usually reads something like generic like "daily advertiser," rather than anything that might clue you into what the ad is actually for.

"If I have strong advertising aversion this could be a good thing," Earl said. "But if I wanted to buy that latte, or from the advertiser's point of view, we're both out of luck, because I don't know I was just offered a deal."

"Programmers program for the person they know best."

The strangest thing about all of this, is that in many of these cases it's not particularly difficult to fix most of these problems. There are plenty of guides online that explain to developers how to design their sites and popup ads to be accessible. So why don't people use them?

"Programmers program for the person they know best," said Allen. "There's a mirror sitting in front of them, and if they could scratch off that silver and see their grandmother or maybe their parent, how much trouble do they have using your site? Have you ever sat and watched them use it?"

Earl said that many programmers don't even test whether their code works in another browser, let alone for a blind person. Programmers need to realize that blind and visually impaired people are using their websites in the first place, in order to code for them.

And almondette said that there's a chicken and egg problem at hand here. "Blind and low vision users appear to the sighted internet as a demographic that doesn't really exist outside of their own little forums or communities," she said. "But the reason there aren't as many blind people on sites like tumblr, etc, is because there's no dedication to accessibility. It's cyclical."

(She did however sing the praises of certain Tumblr sites, like those who go through and add closed-captioning to Vines or add image descriptions to their reblogs. But those are users making the site more accessible, not Tumblr itself.)

When I asked Earl and Allen what the best solution was here they agreed: stop using popups. But until that happens, at least make your popups accessible, if only because it means you'll sell more stuff.