Not Evangelism

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Websites that disable right-click: stupid, ineffective and just plain wrong

I was unpleasantly surprised this week when I discovered  a website that wilfully disables the web browser's right click menu. This practice used to be quite popular some years ago, but I thought it had died out as both websites and web users matured. Certainly, I hadn't thought about it for ages, until just the other day I clicked the right mouse button and bam!

Not the behaviour I was expecting.
In this case, I was not being a power user, was not using a function intended for expert users; I was using something available to all users: the web browser's context menu.

Sometimes I'm too lazy to move the mouse to my web browser's forward/backward navigation buttons, or to move my hands to the access keys. Instead, I'm in the habit of using the browser's context menu; I right click, then follow up with a key press; navigating back to the previous page.

Or not, in this case. Instead of the expected, learned behaviour I got a crappy little pop-up.

Disabling right-click: why do it?

The reasoning goes something like this.

In many web browsers, the context menu typically includes options to print or refresh the current page, and navigating back to the previous page in the browser's history (or forwards to the next). When right-clicking on an image, the context menu includes the option to save a copy of the image to the user's computer. The thinking goes that by disabling the right click - preventing the browser from displaying the context menu - then the users are prevented from copying images from websites.

Disabling right-click: the truth

Having your website prevent users from using their browser's context menu is pointless, crude and ineffective. Kind of like taking away the f, u, c, and k keys off every keyboard in order to prevent people from typing naughty words, it breaks far more than the issue it's trying to prevent.

It's true that preventing the browser from displaying the context menu does indeed prevent the user from saving the image to disk using the context menu. It does not, however, prevent the user from downloading the image.

In the first place, the user has already downloaded the image; which is to say that the web browser has downloaded it to the user's computer on the user's behalf.  In order to show an image on a web page, that image has to be publicly accessible; the web browser has to be able to locate it and download it in order to display it. If you want your users to see your photographs, they need to be able to download them.

Secondly, it's still possible for users to save a copy of the images. They can view the source of the web page (itself often an option on the context menu, but also available from the browser's menu bar) and take the image URL from there. They can, if the developers have been particularly lazy, use keyboard shortcuts to do the same thing.

So instead of being an effective means of preventing all but the most casual of users from making copies of images, we get something that slaps the user in the face.

Disabling right-click kills user experience

This fact should be self-evident. Taking away the context menu takes away more than just the save image functionality. It takes away something that is not the website's to remove; it breaks the user's software. Worse, it breaks their mental model of web usage; it breaks their interaction with websites. It breaks their trust. That's not something you want your website to be responsible for.

When I can't access a bit of functionality I'm accustomed to using on a piece of software I (ostensibly) own, it's a bit jarring. When the website gives me a kick in the process it's infuriating, enraging.

In the case of the website I visited, the popup with the message "Function Disabled!" is clumsiness of the highest order; the minimum amount of work to slam the piano cover down on the pianist's fingers without explanation. There's no explanation to the user of what or why the "function" has been "disabled"; the kind of message that might suggest to some users that their action has resulted in a function being disabled.

Disabling right-click makes your website look amateurish

Disabling right-click strait-jackets the user for little actual benefit. It's crude and clumsy and does not engender trust. Finding this behaviour on websites still feels awkward, amateurish; anyone with a scrap of sense can get the links to the images and download them anyway.

Worse than appearing amateurish, though, is the fact that it handicaps the user's browser. It removes functionality that's not in the site's remit to remove, it breaks the user's learned interaction with the web.

Disabling right-click must stop

And it's only going to get worse. The trend with recent browsers (Chrome, IE9) is to reduce the standard menu elements. Users will quickly tire of hunting for the browser menubar and will increasingly use the context menu to access functionality. Preventing them from doing so is going to inconvenience and irritate an increasing number of users.

There's no good reason to disable right-click. Any justification is just that; an excuse. The wrong decision.

Treat your users like grown ups; they'll respect you more for it.

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