Modern life is hectic. Everyone is in a hurry, and expects instant results whenever possible. This, along with many other things, has led to an increase in anxious behavior among people. Placebo buttons are often used to combat these anxious feelings before they begin. The most well-known example of a placebo button is the “close door” buttons on elevators. In 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed. It ensured that those with disabilities would have enough time to board the elevator without incident. Even though this law came into place, the “close door” button remained. It was proven to ease stress and give the riders more sense of control. While this may be the most well-known example of a placebo button, there are many other situations where they can be useful.
In the digital world you would expect for every button you see to actually do something. While clicking them may take you somewhere, many web ads are clickable over the entire image, making the actual visual button just an illusion. While this space could be used to make the message larger, the button is much more effective at getting people to click it. These buttons help attract attention, and also call for an action in return. Without that clear call-to-action the viewer may not even think to click on the ad, even if they are interested. However, with the button, it serves as a wayfinding point, directing you where to browse next. This not only gets more people to your site, but also helps them feel at ease. Getting lost on a website can be frustrating, but when the path from one place to another is clear it’s much more relaxing.
Much like the “close door” button on elevators, there are many things that are already timed to create the best experience for everyone. Street lights often have “walk” buttons for pedestrians crossing on foot, but many of these street lights are on timers that have been set to allow the most possible traffic through. If these buttons actually worked, they could potentially cause a huge traffic jam from just a few people wanting to cross the street at inconvenient times. As a result, the “walk” buttons stay, but often don’t actually do anything. The buttons just help to make people less anxious and give them a feeling of control over the situation. Even a false sense of control can provide relief, and is often better than leaving people feeling helpless.
Another great example of placebos in the physical world are thermostats. Many hotels and commercial buildings are programmed to be at set temperatures throughout the year. The individual units and thermostats in each room often times don’t work at all. Or when they do work, they may only change the air temperature a fraction of what was intended. Just like the “close door” and “walk” buttons, these thermostats are designed to maximize your comfort subconsciously by providing a false sense of control.
Whether designing for the digital or physical world, a placebo button can be a very useful tool. They can be used in online ads to subconsciously encourage people to click on the ads. They can be used to ease anxiety in situations where the viewer is waiting on a machine’s response, such as the “close door” door on elevators. They can even be used to give the viewer a false sense of control. Whatever the reason for using a placebo button is, the intended result is always making life easier and better for those using them. A placebo button that doesn’t serve these functions could be detrimental to a design, so make sure they’re used properly.