Users tend not to read pop-up balloons

Moving from Windows to Linux can be a harrowing experience. One who does this may experience culture shock and then frustration at not being able to do things the way she was used to doing them. Every now and then (through Ubuntu Brainstorm, a blog post, or a Ubuntu Forums thread) I’ll read a Ubuntu user propose that we have a little balloon or pop-up tutorial on first boot to educate new users about how to use Ubuntu.

I have to say I don’t see what this would accomplish. In my experience, both advanced and average users tend to view pop-ups of any kind as an annoyance to be quickly closed. The only difference I’ve seen is that advanced users tend to read the pop-up message before closing it, and average users tend to not read the message at all.

Some definitions first. The kind of advanced user I’m talking about is the person who is not necessarily a programmer or technology professional but is definitely the person friends and family go to for help with computer problems. The kind of average user I’m talking about can’t find how to start a program if you remove or move its launcher icon.

Let me give you some examples of the behaviors of average users I’ve seen (usually at work, in various jobs).

Someone I know wanted to do some image editing, so I had her install GIMP. Now, whenever she starts GIMP, though, there’s a tip of the day that pops up, and she just gets an annoyed look on her face and closes the tip of the day. This happens every time. She doesn’t ask how to make the tip of the day not appear or read the pop-up, which tells you you can uncheck the box to make the tip not appear when you launch GIMP. She just gets annoyed and closes the tip of the day pop-up.

I, on the other hand, also get annoyed when the tip of the day appears, but I uncheck the box and make sure it never appears again.

Then, of course, there’s the Firefox We blocked a pop-up for you pop-up (or drop-down, or whatever you want to call it). I haven’t met a Firefox user yet who enjoys seeing this appear on her screen.

Just as with the GIMP tip of the day, most Firefox users I know look immediately for the red X to click and then click it to make it go away. Unfortunately, they don’t bother to click on Options to see if there’s an option to make the drop-down not appear again the next time a pop-up is blocked.

If they had, they would have seen that there’s the option Don’t show this message when pop-ups are blocked. And just as with the tip of the day, I, being a relatively advanced user do look for the option to disable the pop-up, but I, too, am annoyed that the pop-up appeared in the first place.

Lastly, all the annoying little messages that appear in the system tray or notification area. You have unused icons. Updates are available to install. Do you know how many Windows users I’ve seen just ignore the notification about updates being available for installation? Do you know how many people do not take the Welcome to Windows Tour of XP?

Pop-up balloons and messages just get in the way of people. Although there may be rare exceptions, generally users fall into one of two categories when it comes to pop-up messages: people who don’t care to read what you have to say, and people who care about the message but would rather get it another way (on their own, without it being shoved in their faces).

So my guess is that if we had this pop-up tutorial or balloon for a tutorial in Ubuntu, then veteran Ubuntu users would be annoyed by something popping up and then not read it because they know it all ready, and new Ubuntu users would be annoyed by something popping up and then not read it because they’re annoyed.

Generally speaking, I’d say if people want to learn something new, they’ll find information about it on their own. If we do want to insert a beginner tutorial into the Ubuntu process, though, what better place to put it than in the installation process? That’s why I’ve proposed this on Ubuntu Brainstorm: Add a tutorial slideshow to the installation process.

Veteran users can click Install, answer a few questions, and walk away. New users can click Install, answer a few questions, and then stay and learn something, because they have to wait for Ubuntu to install anyway.


  1. Agreed on all except the Firefox popup. I actually quite like the notification because often I wanted the popup that was blocked, for instance by following a link which opens in a new window, and the dropdown offers a quick way to show the window without having to go all the way into preferences and add the site to the OK list. I agree completely about the other popups though, especially the “unused icons” or “updates” ones on Windows, which pop up on my work computer despite the fact that the security settings don’t even allow me to do the security updates, they’re all done remotely by IT (which, incidentally, seems more dangerous than letting people do it themselves to me).

  2. Yeah, the Firefox one is a little subtler and a little more useful. Still, I wish it were just the little red X box in the status bar to begin with.

  3. “Pop-up balloons and messages just get in the way of people.”

    Yes, they do, so please take your own advice turn off the Snap Shots popups on this blog! :)

    You’ve got a lot of great posts, btw. Consider me your newest subscriber. :)

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