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Ambiguous interface and things that look like buttons but aren't


Ambiguous interface and things that look like buttons but aren't

Liam Spradlin

A few days ago, I wrote about Software Voice and things that don't look like buttons. Today, I want to discuss things that do look like buttons, but aren't. 

Most often, I see this in marketing emails. Sending HTML formatted emails isn't that easy - there are a lot of mail clients out there, and making a message that works and appears consistently across all platforms is a tough proposition, so many email marketers opt for ambiguous interfaces, where entire images are links, there are fake buttons on those images, and text links outside the images. In normal web design that would be a sin, but it's worth thinking about email marketers' motivation before deciding that it's a bad decision.

Let's take a look at a few recent promotional emails. I'll highlight in blue the clickable area, and put a dotted line around things that look clickable.


I think what this comes down to is the inability to put an actual button over an image in an HTML email. But marketers still want large visuals to attract attention (ignoring for a moment whether that's a good plan), but they want to make sure that as many people click through as possible, so there are at least two visual link cues, and at least three actual link areas in every visual, so you could basically click through by accident.

So while it's interesting to see things that look like buttons but actually aren't, maybe it's for the best in this specific implementation. Of course in an ideal world, all email clients would be equally capable of handling more complex code and more developed interfaces.

Ambiguous interfaces are vexing at first, and there may be better design decisions than a lineup of big photos, but perhaps ambiguous interfaces have a place after all.