Bootstrap Popover/Tooltip Click Trigger


  1. Narration
  2. Breakdown
  3. Demo


Web development has it’s quirks. And by I mean that those of us like myself who are used to the simple and safe territory of a well defined, well documented, and most of all  consistent server-side programming language usually end up somewhere between daunted and devastated each time we subject ourselves to the tempestuous whims of front-end development. Like a peaceful Vault-dweller, each time I poke my head into the Capital Wasteland of browser-compatibility I either retreat in fear, or venture forth to discover that these badlands are just as much of a deathtrap as I believed them to be.

Unfortunately, my job requires on a daily basis for me to venture out into this dangerous wilderness and test my mettle (and much more so my patience) by working with that special trifecta of HTML, CSS, and Javascript. I also have a terrible memory, so I run into the same problems and reinvestigate them far more often than I should. So I’m making a start to writing down those problems, both for my reference and yours.

Let me begin by saying that I have a confession to make. I use Bootstrap. And I love it. I rely on it. It makes a lot of this terrible business a lot more bearable. When it goes wrong it makes me sad. Not just because I then actually have to do my own work, but because it’s like my close friend has suddenly grown a second, angrier head and has started hurling insults and rocks my way. In short, I feel betrayed.

Most recently this happened with the Twitter Bootstrap popover extension. Normally a lovely tool, I found all of a sudden it would refuse to appear when I attached it to an anchor tag and set it’s trigger event to ‘click’.

For some reason, the ‘click’ trigger maps to an event that requires the element to receive focus. Although this is just fine in Firefox (and IE!), in WebKit based browsers like Chrome and Safari certain tags cannot receive focus from the mouse if they don’t have a tabindex. Oddly enough, the anchor tag is given a place in the tab-order by default in all the browsers I’ve investigated so you can trigger onfocus events by tabbing through to the element, but not by clicking it. It took me a lot longer than it should to figure that out. If you just came here to get your popover working on click you can go home now. Just add “tabindex=’0′” to the elements that you want to have popovers or tooltips and it should work just fine. If you’re more curious about why this is, and how it works, I’ve got a couple more paragraphs for you.

The trouble is, we don’t really have a standard for this. The closest we have is the DOM Level 2 HTML specification that actually defines focus methods for only four tags; HTMLInputElement, HTMLSelectElement, HTMLTextAreaElement and HTMLAnchorElement. What is focusable and how (by keyboard navigation or by mouse clicking) is left somewhat open ended. Because of this, different browsers have chosen to allow focus events by default on a wide variety of elements.

This puts the tabindex attribute in the position of not only dictating the tab order, but also the focusability of elements. Once you get past the now apparent misnaming of the attribute, it’s easy to use in this manner, and should resolve further problems of focus quickly and easily (at least it has for me). For quick analysis of whether this issue is the source of your difficulties I highly recommend referencing this well organized table which details browser behaviour by element in regards to focus.



Boostrap popovers/tooltips using ‘click’ trigger aren’t working on certain elements in Chrome and Safari.

Root Cause

Many HTML elements can’t obtain focus (in some cases this only applies to gaining focus from a mouse click! -_-) in certain browsers by default.


If the you want to be able to give the elements focus by mouse, but exclude them from the tab-order (and thereby keyboard focussing), give them a tab index of -1.

If you would like the elements to maintain their tab-order give them a tabindex of 0, and they will be able to gain focus from both mouse and keyboard.

Further Reading

  1. DOM Level 2 HTML Specification
  2. Reference table of browser behaviour
  3. A better written, more technical, and more informative look at much the same topic

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *