collage of interstitials blocking user's view of a website's content

When a user moves their mouse from the middle of the page toward the navigation bar — presumably to abandon the page — there are technologies which can track this behavior and trigger a “mouse-out” alert. While this UX element (from companies such as Crazy Egg and Rooster) has great potential, I’ve found it far too common that websites use this to overlay huge pop-ups across the entire screen as a last-ditch effort to convert users.

The exit-intent overlay has to have been popularized by people siloed off from user experience design, because it becomes clear quite quickly that these exit-intent overlays (1) arguably do a poor job of serving the initial intent of increasing conversions, and (2) work against the user’s goals, which exist [gasp!] outside that website.

Let me explain:

  1. Does a poor job of increasing conversions. A person opens a blog post about the psychology of color in marketing. The first paragraph looks promising and she moves her cursor to the top right to access the scrollbar. This then triggers the exit-intent overlay, obscuring her view of the rest of the article. “Sign up for our newsletter!” the overlay implores. If time on page and the amount a person scrolls down a page are positive engagement metrics, why has the site just stopped her from engaging with the rest of the article? If “the rule of seven” — that a customer needs to interact seven times before buying — is marketing 101, why does the site demand a newsletter conversion before a new user has even finished reading one article?

  2. Works against user goals. At the end of my workday, I usually open a row of new tabs of that day’s UX-related tweets that pique my interest — many people engage in this kind of parallel browsing and page parking (keeping many tabs open to multi-task, and opening multiple tabs at once to research a particular topic). Sites that trigger exit overlays when I switch tabs, or after a specified amount of time, guarantee that I must close the overlay before I interact with their content for the first time. Some overlays even insult my intelligence by making me click a button that says “No, I don’t want free things” or “I hate good advice” before I interact with their content for the first time.

A variety of companies will try to convince you that exit overlays are great, or at least that you can use them responsibly. I’ll grant that some websites may see increased newsletter conversions, but at what long-term cost to their brand? While some users may sign up for the newsletter willingly, many others may feel bullied into signing up or even leave in disgust. As a research psychologist recently transitioned to UX, I recognize this aggressive persuasion technique as an example of dark design patterns and needy design patterns. With some reworking, perhaps mouse-out trackers can help users and companies achieve aligned goals — like how Google Calendar sends notifications to my phone when it knows I do not have Calendar opened in my browser. When it comes to conversions, however, there are no magic bullets and there are no short-cuts. Companies that want to up conversions must allow potential clients time to research on their own terms.

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