How to Win User Engagement with Great Modal UI Design

How to Win User Engagement with Great Modal UI Design

Pop-ups, overlays, slide-ins, whatever you want to call them. We’re about to walk you through top modal UI design strategies and examples to help you build modals your users will love.

Ray Slater Berry
11 min read
How to Win User Engagement with Great Modal UI Design

Let’s paint the scene. You’re about to leave a website where you’ve had a pretty good time. The content was solid, you appreciated its value, but, your stomach rumbles and that pack of Oreos is calling. You go to leave the website and a screen pops up: 


It gets worse. Imagine you’ve finished your Oreos and you jump over to a SaaS website whose free trial you’ve been meaning to take for a spin. You’re about to click on the product tab from their homepage when an overlay covers your screen: 

You forgot to sign up! Create your premium account NOW!

Perturbed, you mentally write off both of these websites for future visits. Modal windows are intrusive. They disrupt your users’ flow, and can massively manipulate the reputation someone holds of your SaaS website or product. 

However, they’re also extremely valuable—if done right. This article is about to showcase how you can do modal UI/UX design right.

What is a modal? #

A modal is a product or website element that typically pops up on top of on-screen content. It often disables the content on the screen and requests the user to take an action—click on a button or close/dismiss the modal. 

A modal is also known as an overlay, pop-over, pop-up, or dialog window, but it doesn’t necessarily block the screen. Depending on how you configure it, it can appear as a slide-in or a pop-up triggered by clicking on or hovering over a page element. 

Used carefully, modals are a valuable tool in user interface design that can help you grab users’ attention and win their engagement. For example, you can create a welcoming (and personalized) product tour with modals. Here’s what the first step could look like.

Why modal UI design matters so much #

Modals are an effective way for your brand to communicate with your users. They are a method to present “not-to-be-missed” information, and they often garner higher impressions than emails or other forms of communication. 

However, modals are also in the way of your user’s job-to-be-done. Even if the information you’re presenting will help users, at that moment it’s causing them extra work and time. 

Therefore, the UI/UX design of your modal is absolutely critical to communicating your message while keeping your users happy.

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When to use modals #

So, when should you use a modal window or dialog window? And, when are you better off communicating via email, chatbot, or another communication channel? 

Let’s map out some occasions when you should and shouldn’t use a modal. 

A modal overlay is best for: 

  • Onboarding flows 

  • Error messages 

  • Success messages 

  • New product updates

  • New feature announcements 

  • Event announcements 

  • Must-have data collection 

  • Sign up CTAs 

We’ll get to some top modal examples later. But, before we do, let’s look at those cases where you’ll want to use a modal and really shouldn’t.

When not to use modals #

There will be moments when your team wants to communicate with a user and will jump to the conclusion of using a modal. Always consider if a modal is relevant and beneficial to the user experience before you activate it. 

A few tempting comms to avoid in modals are: 

  • Offering additional information: a tooltip is definitely better! 

  • Alert messages and system-wide notifications

  • If the user hasn’t triggered them: prompting users to complete unrelated tasks, out of context to the actions they’re taking on your website or in your app

  • To communicate a large amount of information: an email or a blog post is better for this  

  • Activating a modal over another modal: never overlay on an overlay! 

Fab, we’ve covered when you should and shouldn’t implement a modal pop-up. Let’s get into some best practices and SaaS brands leading the way with stellar modal UX examples. 

12 modal best practices for better UX/UI design #

Right, let’s explore some modal best practices for your UX and UI design process. 

1. Start with clear titles 💎   #

First up, you’ll want to ensure your modal title clearly explains why the modal is there. People want to know why their session has been interrupted as quickly as possible. Make sure your title is explicit and gets to the point fast.

2. Use explanatory graphics 🎨  #

Where words fail you, graphics and GIFs won’t. Modals are notoriously short. So, for what you can’t say in words, showcase it with visuals. You’ll see a great example of this with Airtable further on. 

3. Work on sharp body copy 🤌 #

Writing modal dialog is the perfect time to showcase your UX copywriting skills and kill those darlings. You’ll need to be explicit, cut the magic, and get straight to the point. Don’t be afraid to use emojis where they make sense and if your brand guidelines allow them. 

The above example from Miro is great in many ways, however, there is room for improvement! The body copy is a little too long, and the title: “Let’s make meetings better” is too vague. Plus, there’s no clear CTA. Talking of which…

4. Give an explicit call to action 🆓 #

A modal’s main focus is to provoke an action from your user. So, make their job easier and give them a clear call to action. If possible, this should be a button or input box within the modal. A user cannot interact with your modal if you don’t provide the option to do so.

Keep in mind the actual CTA button design too. Think about the colors, color contrast, sizing, and button copy. You’ll want the button to stand out, but not jar the reader or break your branding guidelines.  

5. Craft an escape hatch 🏃 #

If you’re going to interrupt users, you’ll need to give them a quick way out. Give your modal a clear escape hatch, come back later, or snooze option as a basic usability principle. This ensures you’re focussing on the user experience and functionality, and avoids frustration from your users. 

Your escape hatch can be: 

  • A clear ✖️ in the top corner of the modal 

  • An option to click outside of the modal window to exit

  • Another exit CTA underneath the action you want the user to take

  • Hitting Esc on the keyboard

This is also known as a cancel button / dismiss button.

With Chameleon, you can easily configure and customize the Dismiss button. Or you can offer the “Snooze” option to help users get back to the tour at their convenience. Will they come back? Yes, they will! Our benchmark data shows that 18% of users choose to snooze tours when given a chance. 

6. Pay attention to sizing and location 📍 #

Design principle 101, but we’re getting into it anyway. It’s important not to overwhelm users with your modal taking up their entire screen This gives them little screen space to click out and exit and makes them feel as though they’re no longer on track to their goal. 

You’ll also need to keep this area of your modal design responsive to mobile or desktop and take up enough space so your content grabs user attention and is legible, while not overpowering your user’s flow. 

7. Implement action-triggered modals 🧑‍💻 #

There’s nothing worse than a modal that springs up out of the blue and sends users recoiling in their seats. These are known as system-initiated modal windows. They’re often irrelevant and most probably comms that should have been delivered on another channel.

Instead, make sure your modals have relevance based on your user actions and where they are in the customer journey. In other words, go for user-initiated modals. For example, it can be an onboarding checklist triggered by a hover over an icon, and it could look like this.

8. Trap keyboard navigation within the modal 📱 #

This is especially important when designing modals for mobile. You’ll need to ensure you trap keyboard navigations within the modal window. This will especially help with quick-win activations and smoother new feature adoptions. 

9. Use progress bars for modal tours ⏳ #

Progress bars are so crucial for completions, especially if you’re running a product tour via modals for user onboarding

For the latest Chameleon Benchmark Report, we analyzed over 300 million in-product Experiences and found that three-step tour modals get the highest completion rate at 72%. 

10. Stay consistent with what people know 👨‍🏫 #

Stay consistent with modal UI design trends and UI patterns that users are already familiar with—there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. 

Tony Gines, Founding Designer at Scribe, explains more: 

“Stay consistent with conventional controls for a modal. Users will want to look for those. So, keeping the Close button in a familiar place, having clear CTAs and choice options is crucial.”

– Tony Gines, Founding Designer at Scribe

Looking to improve your in-product experiences while maintaining a unified look? Try one of these 10 free UI kits 👇

11. Design for different devices 🤳 #

Web vs. mobile modal is something you’ll need to pay close attention to if you want to retain users. Keep your users’ devices in mind and ensure your modal is responsive depending on this.

Tony Gines shares questions you should be asking in the modal prototyping stage. 

“Account for different types of screen real estate. Does the modal’s content require a scroll on mobile screens? Are the controls relying on aspects that don’t exist consistently across devices, like hovering your cursor over something for tooltips?”

– Tony Gines, Founding Designer at Scribe

Take a look at the mobile modal UI example below. You’ve got a Google Meet interface that pays attention to mobile users giving them the one-click option to copy the meeting link or share the invite with their contacts. 

12. Focus on… focusing 🔍 #

Lastly, find ways you can draw immediate attention to the modal, without it covering an entire screen.

Tony Gines shares some UI tactics for doing this.

“Make sure you’re showing the user that this modal is clearly something that needs attention, so bringing it further to the foreground with design elements like shadows, background dimming or blurring helps set the modal apart from the rest of the page layout.” 

– Tony Gines, Founding Designer at Scribe

Noted these 12 modal UI design best practices? Then it’s time to keep this ball rolling with our top modal design examples.

4 fabulous modal examples for their UI/UX design #

The moment we’ve all been waiting for—which SaaS brands are out there doing modals best? Which leaders are implementing our 12 modal design best practices? Let’s find out.

Example #1: Google #

If anyone’s going to do modals right, it’s Google. We applaud Google here for a few reasons: 

  • It’s unobtrusive: This design acts more like a tooltip pop-up than a whole screen modal. 

  • It’s clear: The arrow to the left of the modal helps to showcase the exact product update they’re referring to. 

  • The body copy is concise: It quickly explains exactly what the user can do in Gmail because of this update. 

How can this modal be even better? The title is a little inconspicuous, darlings were not killed here. The graphic visual—although it looks great—doesn’t help educate the user.

Example #2: Linktree #

Next in our modal hall of fame is Linktree. Used by many small businesses, Linktree is a great way for brands to share multiple links with just one. Why did it make the list? 

  • A clear title: this product update modal clearly communicates what’s new from the word go. 

  • Use of emojis: Emojis are on-brand for Linktree while helping to guide the user’s eyes. 👀

  • Clear CTA: This screenshot was part of a three-step product update modal, and the two CTAs are very clear, you can either upgrade to unlock the new feature or jump to the final product modal slide. 

How can the modal design be even better? The body copy didn’t need so many examples, people know what video content they have access to. A progress bar would have been beneficial in this instance as well. 

Example #3: LANDR #

LANDR, music software for creators, built their onboarding tour with Chameleon. It makes the list for a couple of reasons: 

  • Action-triggered: After the initial tour, users can trigger smaller product tours as they navigate through the platform.

  • The title is clear: LANDR knows the importance of fighting customer churn. Despite the user already being in the product, this tour comes before activation: they’re delivering product benefits and addressing pain points as they onboard. 

  • Progress bar: In the bottom left corner, you can see the user progress bar “2 of 4”, encouraging a higher completion rate. 

How can this modal be even better? The body copy could be refined and made a bit shorter to fit one paragraph of text. It would provide room for a larger font size or for more white space.

Example #4: Airtable #

Last on the list for a fabulous modal UI design example is Airtable. Here, they’re introducing a product update that enables users to build interfaces from various in-app data points. 

So, why did this modal design example make the list? 

  • Show, don’t tell: Airtable expertly uses video to highlight what the user can do, saving their precious lines of in-app messaging copy for other things. 

  • Clear escape hatch: the top left-hand corner of the model gives users an easy-to-spot ✖️ to click out of the tour if they don’t feel like taking it right now—an essential modal usability principle. 

How can this be even better? This modal product tour would definitely be improved with a progress bar.

Closing out on popping up #

That’s everything on modal UI design. Whether you call them a pop-up, pop-over, dialog window, or something else, hopefully, you’ll be designing them better thanks to this guide.

A big thank you to our contributor for this piece, Tony Gines, Founding Designer at Scribe, and to those brands that made our examples so easy to showcase: Airtable, Google, Linktree, and LANDR.

Bookmark this page, come back to it when you need it, and if you find any stellar product modal examples you think deserve the feature then please do send them our way on Twitter—we’re all ears!

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