Placebo-buttons in everyday life and in web design

Placebo-buttons in everyday life and in web design

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Placebo effect in web design

Placebo effect in web design. Few years ago, bright yellow touch buttons with indicator light activation appeared under the crosswalk signs in many countries. When you press the button, the red light lights up, that is located directly above it, the same lamp lights up on the button located on the opposite side. The logical conclusion is that these buttons somehow manage the traffic lights, did not receive sufficient practical confirmations. Those rare cases, when after you push the button, the green lamp lights up, were more coincidence than the result of well-functioning management system.

traffic light button

Logic tells, that if we push the buttons, it should control the traffic light. But quick search on the Internet explained that the buttons should control the traffic lights, however it still does not fulfill its duties for some reasons. In comments on a forum there was a link to an article which describes a similar experience in other countries. It was explained that either the buttons have to work at night, or this is a trick, which is called the “placebo button”.

The idea of placebo buttons is to use human’s desire to constantly monitor all aspects of our life. In the context of traffic light it looks like this:

– Approaching the traffic light, which is red, subconsciously we are not sure that the green light will light up. Due to this uncertainty, the waiting time seems (to us) infinitely long and probably pointless, that motivates us to neglect the rules of the road and go through the red light.

– But if we see a control element on the traffic light, after its activation we find some inner confidence that someone knows about it and he will switch the green light for us. In this case, it does not matter that in fact, there is no relationship between pressing the button and the work of the traffic light.

Another relevant example:

In a variety of offices, thermostats are not connected to anything at all. Renters and engineers just plug dummy thermostats to keep people from wasting the company’s money on a constant temperature adjustment. According to article from 2003 in “Wall Street Journal”, the climate control experts suspect that about 90% of the thermostats in offices are fakes.

It turned out, that the placebo effect is used in web design as well.

It means that some sites use elements of control and design, that gives the appearance that the user controls the outcome. The true purpose of such elements is to create a positive user experience and enhance user loyalty to a particular site.

Here are some examples:

“Update” button

Most modern websites update the provided information without any additional effort on your part. A striking example is Facebook or Twitter, in which notification events come as they become available. However, most of those who found the need to refresh the page, still continue pressing F5, when they think that the waiting time is delayed. The same placebo idea is observed in mobile applications. Developers specially add functionality which “makes it possible to” update the application or design elements that tells that the process of updating information is “going on”.

Why is it done? Your application provides all the new information as received, but how to explain it to the user who can absolutely do not understand the possibilities of modern applications, the user who started worrying about the disappeared Internet, or that the application does not work, phone glitches and so on. Placebo-update removes all these fears, telling the user that we are all checked, but no new information has been received really, no event has occurred.


Using this technique was observed in Netflix and Quora. After registration, Quora offers a choice of themes for personalizing your subscription. The mechanism actually works, besides that you get information about articles that relate to your chosen category, and even a list of the subscription is automatically sorted according to the themes you selected earlier. But later on, Quora uses a trick, which even contradicts some basic standards UX. After selecting all the topics and pressing the confirmation button, you can see a message about adjustingg your personal profile with loading indicator.

To be frank, the implementation of this algorithm should not require even a second. But it seems that many powerful algorithms work for you and only for you. User enthusiastically looks at loading indicator, but which could be hateful to him in most cases, and the user is imbued with the power of modern technology, which does work on his benefit.


  • Proper use of the placebo effect allows artificially create a positive user experience, without changing the functionality of your site
  • You need to ensure that your user is under the control of interface, which prevents the occurrence of negative experience based on fear and lack of understanding of the situation.


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