Using the Popover API for HTML Tooltips

Can it be done? This plucky front-end developer intends to find out.

Can we do it?

We looked at the Popover API and how it’s made it’s way across all browsers already just last week. One of the things I should have done is looked at the accessibility considerations more closely. Thanks to Melanie Sumner there is a great explainer with demos. I tried to adhere to the points made in there the best I could while making a classic tooltips experience, and we’ll do a bit of a review at the end where deviations happened.

Starting With HTML

This is actually my favorite part, as remember, this API can be used entirely in HTML. That rules. Remember when we got <details> where you could build an interactive open/close disclosure widget thing with just HTML? That also rules, but this is even cooler.

One small weirdness though, it only works in HTML alone when a <button> is the “invoker” of opening the popup. So in the case of a tooltip, that button might come right in the middle of a sentence like.

   This blog post was written by 
   <button popovertarget="popover-chris-coyier">
     Chris Coyier
   the genius.
</p>Code language: HTML, XML (xml)

Then elsewhere in the DOM (the location of which doesn’t effect the core functionality):

<div id="popover-chris-coyier" popover role="tooltip">
  <img src="/images/chris.jpg" alt="A portrait of Chris Coyier in a tuxedo." width="100" height="100">
  <h4>Chris Coyier</h4>
  <p>Handsome fella.</p>
</div>Code language: HTML, XML (xml)

Note I’m calling this an HTML Tooltip, because what pops up isn’t text alone, which you might argue can be done with the title attribute. These popovers are far more flexible, allowing you to style them and can contain anything HTML can.

The weird part here is the button smack in the middle of the paragraph. That’ll be a bit awkward styling-wise, but that’s surmountable. Mostly I don’t know if that’s “cool” screen-reader wise. So if someone know’s, feel free to chime in. If it’s not cool, we might have to think about using a different element that is cool and relying on JavaScript to invoke the popup.

The Basic CSS

I say basic, because we cannot to tooltip-like styling in CSS for these yet. That is, we cannot position them next to the button that invoked them. We’ll get that, someday, when we can use the Anchor Positioning API.

But we can do everything else that we want in terms of styling.

For one thing, let’s make the the middle-of-text look of the button look like something you can click. That’s something Melanie pointed out as a requirement. Rather than just being blue and underlined like a normal link, I’ll add an icon so it indicates slightly different behavior. We also need to undo basic button styling so the button looks more like just some text. I usually have a class for that I call “text-like”. So:

button[popovertarget].text-like {
  border: 0;
  background: none;
  font: inherit;
  display: inline-block;

  color: #1e88e5;
  text-decoration-style: dashed;
  text-decoration-line: underline;
  text-decoration-color: #42a5f5;
  text-underline-offset: 2px;
  overflow: visible;

  padding: 0 1.1rem 0 0; /* space for icon */
  background-image: url("data:image/svg+xml,%3Csvg xmlns='' viewBox='0 0 512 512' width='100' title='question-circle'%3E%3Cpath fill='%231e88e5' d='M504 256c0 136.997-111.043 248-248 248S8 392.997 8 256C8 119.083 119.043 8 256 8s248 111.083 248 248zM262.655 90c-54.497 0-89.255 22.957-116.549 63.758-3.536 5.286-2.353 12.415 2.715 16.258l34.699 26.31c5.205 3.947 12.621 3.008 16.665-2.122 17.864-22.658 30.113-35.797 57.303-35.797 20.429 0 45.698 13.148 45.698 32.958 0 14.976-12.363 22.667-32.534 33.976C247.128 238.528 216 254.941 216 296v4c0 6.627 5.373 12 12 12h56c6.627 0 12-5.373 12-12v-1.333c0-28.462 83.186-29.647 83.186-106.667 0-58.002-60.165-102-116.531-102zM256 338c-25.365 0-46 20.635-46 46 0 25.364 20.635 46 46 46s46-20.636 46-46c0-25.365-20.635-46-46-46z' /%3E%3C/svg%3E");
  background-size: 0.8em;
  background-repeat: no-repeat;
  background-position: center right 1px;

  &:hover {
    text-decoration-color: lightblue;
    text-decoration-style: solid;
}Code language: CSS (css)

That leads to a within-paragraph look like this:

Then if we apply some super basic styling to the [popover] element itself, we can get a popover opening exactly in the middle of the page like this:

A couple of notes here:

  • I did not use any ::backdrop styling to style the rest of the page behind the popover. I feel like that may be a bit of an anti-pattern if using for tooltips. I don’t see any need to mess with the rest of the page when a tooltip is open.
  • I wanted to use flexbox on the popup, but that caused an issue, because display: flex; overrides the default display: none; of the popup, making it visible all the time. Instead, you can use [popover]:popover-open { } to apply it only when the popover is open. Or use an internal wrapper or whatever.

The Functional JavaScript

We need JavaScript here for two jobs:

  1. Normal tooltip behavior suggests you should be able to hover over an element and the tooltip will appear. That cannot be done in HTML alone. Maybe it could be done in CSS somehow with an animation delay or something, but it’s likely a bit more straightforward in JavaScript.
  2. Again, CSS doesn’t have anchor positioning yet, so we’ll do positioning with JavaScript.

These are both progressive enhancements, which is nice. So if either thing fails, the tooltip should still work.

The Hover Delay

For the delay, we’ll start a timer when the mouse cursor enters a button that opens a popup, if the timer finishes, we’ll open it. If the mouse cursor leaves before the timeout, we’ll clear that timeout:

const popoverButtons = document.querySelectorAll(

popoverButtons.forEach((button) => {
  let timeout = 0;
  button.addEventListener("mouseenter", () => {
    const target = button.getAttribute("popovertarget");
    const popover = document.querySelector("#" + target);
    // delay opening
    timeout = setTimeout(() => {
    }, 1500);

  button.addEventListener("mouseleave", () => {
});Code language: JavaScript (javascript)

The Positioning

I went for a library called Floating UI to do this. I came across it the other day while using a library called Shepherd JS for creating tours (example). Shepherd uses it for positioning the steps of the tour, which are usually not far away from what an HTML tooltip might look like.

The .showPopover() API is what opens the popup, so the trick is positioning it as it is being opened.

popoverButtons.forEach((button) => {
  let timeout = 0;
  button.addEventListener("mouseenter", () => {
    const target = button.getAttribute("popovertarget");
    const popover = document.querySelector("#" + target);
    // delay opening
    timeout = setTimeout(() => {
      computePosition(button, popover, {
        placement: "top",
        middleware: [flip(), shift({ padding: 5 }), offset(6)]
      }).then(({ x, y }) => {
        Object.assign(, {
          left: `${x}px`,
          top: `${y}px`
    }, 1500);

  button.addEventListener("mouseleave", () => {
Code language: JavaScript (javascript)

All that computePosition stuff with the middleware is just how Floating UI works. The flip() function is especially nice, which is essentially “edge detection”. Now the popover will attempt to be positioned on top like this:

But if there is no room on top, because that’s where the edge of the browser window is, it will “flip” to the bottom like this:




  • ✅ The links that open popups looks like that’s probably what they will do.
  • ✅ The links the trigger the popups work. They can be clicked to open (and close) the popup. JavaScript provides a hover-to-open effect as well, mimicking title behavior.
  • 🤷‍♀️ Unsure if a <button> in the middle of a <p> where the text is part of the sentence is acceptable from an accessibility perspective.
  • 🤷‍♀️ Unsure where the perfect DOM Positioning of the popup would be. My gut tells me to treat it like a footnote, putting them at the end of the main content they apply to. This seems like it would matter quite a bit for something like syndication/RSS where they might just appear as additional paragraphs without context. Or possibly right after the text element that has the popup so they are closer contextually.
  • 🤷‍♀️ I would probably always use popover="hint" to allow for multiple popovers to be open at once in a tooltip scenario, but it’s unclear if that will happen or if that will be the naming.

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3 responses to “Using the Popover API for HTML Tooltips”

  1. Avatar eugene says:

    Here is one that also makes use of popover, popovertarget without js, and [popover]::backdrop to animate the popover

  2. Avatar Una says:

    It sounds like a lot of what you’re describing here would be “interesttrigger”-ed popovers. This is something the OpenUI CG has been trying to sort out. It would enable: hover/focus to trigger the popover and the ability to have this trigger be a link (not just a button). As you can imagine, this is quite a complex task accessibility-wise, so there are a lot of discussions currently going on to resolve open questions. Also! Anchor positioning is almost here (it’s in Chrome Beta, coming to stable next week, and is at least being prototypes in Firefox).

    interesttarget explainer:

  3. Avatar Armagan says:

    Thanks so much for sharing great insights on the article, it is super useful. I recently worked on a tooltip component and we used popover as well! Just sharing a codepen in case it is helpful for anyone, that has the animation delay with CSS and tiny adjustment to make sure tooltips are also visible to keyboard users!

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