Idiot Buttons: The Placebo in UX Design
Customer-Centricity | Industry Savvy

Idiot Buttons: The Placebo in UX Design

on / by Oliver McGough

Users love control. Even in an automated world, our user wants to control the machine. To know that it is under their bidding, and to know it is serving their needs.

Yet, in an age of ever more intuitive interfaces, control is slipping out of the user’s hands. Reduced inputs leave our user only a bystander.

The placebo prevents this. The placebo places control back into our users hands. Yet, the placebo does nothing.

The Idiot, or Placebo, button

We’ve all been there; walking to a pedestrian crossing just as the red man struts in our way. The minute you wait there under his glow feels like the longest in the world. So you take to the button alongside you, furiously mashing it in the hope the green man will banish his unwanted cousin. Yet no amount of mashing seems to help. You’re still stood there pondering a traffic-weaving run.

Why doesn’t that mashing help? Why wouldn’t that button deliver you? Because the button doesn’t do anything.

More often than not, these buttons are nothing but a placebo. To distract and occupy whilst we wait for the predetermined lights to change. Shocking, I know.

Is there really any need for the button?

So why bother with the button at all? It is all about control. Without that button, we would come to the crossing unsure whether the lights know we are there. Unsure whether the lights are ever going to change. The button gifts control of the lights to the pedestrian. We hit the button, trustful in the fact that the lights know we are there and will change for us (despite being pre-determined!)

You can find these placebo, or ‘idiot’, buttons in many places: From elevators, to office heating systems.

Placebo in webdesign

We needn’t confine these placebos to the physical world. As designers our job is to provide users with the best possible experience. The placebo provides, among other things, added control to a situation. A situation which can be a User Interface. Fake interaction can improve a user experience.

The Refresh Button

In a world where fresh information is always available, the refresh has all but disappeared. Apps auto-adjust their contents to match location (Foursquare), for social updates (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), or for whatever purpose it is that app is filling. Yet, though we may not need it, there always remains a method of refreshing the application. Be it a downward swipe, or via a simple button.
Why keep a redundant feature?

Again, it is all about control. You can serve the user all available information, but how do you convey that message to your user? How do they know you have served all the information?

The placebo-refresh allays any fears. It tells the user that there is no more information to come. It provides relief over waiting, and provides a sense of control to the user’s feed where there isn’t any.

Personalised Experiences

The creation of personalised content proves a use of the placebo outside of the control analogy. We often find, when signing up for websites, that a site will tune itself to meet our needs. Taking what it thinks we like to create a custom, personalised experience. Both Netflix and Quora show examples of this.

Quora personalisation, courtesy of

In Quora asks users on sign up to select the categories that interest them. Once chosen, Quora informs us that it is creating our personalised experience and presents a loading screen. This leads us to believe their software is compiling our custom experience. Thousands of algorithms firing to ensure it is just right for me.

I wouldn’t feel so special I were you. This placebo-ed wait is nothing more than filler. Something to make you feel special, make it seem as if all this processing power is being devoted to you. The algorithm may take no more than a few microseconds to create your dashboard, but the added wait makes it seem so much valuable.

In this context the placebo is less about control, and more about building anticipation. Artificially increasing the value of the experience.


  • Ensure the User always remains in control of the interface, even if you have to provide fake interactions.
  • The placebo offers a means to manipulate and control a user’s experience, without altering the system.

Ebook download – Idiot Buttons: The Placebo in UX Design

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Article by

Oliver McGough

Passionate UX Designer and Marketer.

Share your thoughts

  • Great article! I had always suspected that about crossing lights.

  • I enjoyed this article, particularly the final part. Pretending they’re customising your experience is intersting idea, provided you don’t have to wait too long. I might try this.

    I would say though that the refresh swipe example, in the second section of your article, isn’t a placebo. It does however give the user great control. Email inboxes etc. don’t constantly poll for new messages they do it on a timer, for efficiency. What the refresh button is saying is “go do it for me now”. So it does support your argument for great user control but thought I’d just mention it’s not really a placebo button, it’s not redundant. Just incase people wanted to scrap it as clutter.

    • Oliver McGough

      Thanks for the input James, glad you enjoyed it :)

      In hindsight, you’re spot on with the email refresh. I should have distinguished between Total control, full placebo, and somewhere in between (which is where I feel the refresh lies). As you said, it provides the user with total control, with a button which does actually do something, but isn’t always needed (though does increase efficiency).

      Another example I completely managed to neglect at the time of writing was the save button. I remember freaking out using Google Docs for the first time as I couldn’t save. I just had tot trust the system message. In this vein, a placebo button that really does nothing would be perfect. The user can hit save despite their progress being logged as they type.

  • Francisco

    I wouldn’t bet that Quora is throwing that spinner only to build anticipation. My guess is, they have to query the servers that hold your information hostage (let’s say Facebook graph) and then run some personalization algorithms that could go from looking at your interests to looking at your most contacted friends’ interests. This can certainly take a few seconds, if not more in the case of third party API calls.

    The 10 seconds are probably a “this should be enough time” measure, in my opinion. It definitely doesn’t take microseconds regarding third party APIs.

  • NIG

    Oh, I remember my programmer’s days many years ago… I was creating scripts that did some checkups, work and of course printed output. Script could complete all it’s work in less than a second, so I was using “sleep” command to create delays between printings. This created illusion that script did significant work, and you can trust it’s outputs… heh… this really worked well :-D

  • Khairul Islam

    I live in in the UK and there is a controlled pedestrian crossing near my house where the green man NEVER comes on unless someone presses the button. I know this absolutely certainly.

  • *Joel*

    Looks like the writer doesn’t know how the traffic lights actually work.

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