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Should I use a button or a link?

I’ve written previously about the important differences between buttons and links. While reviewing some “component refresh” design mocks at work yesterday I noticed the designs were a bit unclear in this regard so I sent the designers a little decision-tree, which I’m noting here for future reference.

It’s important both for our users and for us as practitioners to distinguish between links (the <a> element) and the <button> element. The reason I push this is because they’re fundamentally different functionally, which has important usability implications. Users expect to use mouse, keyboard, browser back-button and assistive tech differently for links than they do for <button>s. And if they can’t visually distinguish one from the other, they’ll try things they expect to work then get confused when they don’t work.

I think this is an area where design and materials can’t be considered separately and need a joined-up approach.

Here’s a flow I hope is helpful.

Ask: does it…

  1. take the user to another page? Then it’ll be a link – the <a> (anchor) element.
  2. cause something to change on the current page, or submit a form? Then it’ll be a button – i.e. the <button> element.

If it’s a link (<a>):

  • it should be underlined so people know it’s a link
  • it should have a hover state, for example stay underlined but change colour
  • in cases where it’s a CTA you might choose to design it to look button-like and remove some standard link affordances. Just be aware you’re only “calling” it a button. In real user-experienced terms, it’s still a link.
  • it does not natively have a disabled state. We shouldn’t be disabling links.

If it’s a button (<button>):

  • it should look like a button, i.e. like a pill or rectangle
  • It should not look like a link – that’d confuse users into thinking it takes them to another page.
  • So it shouldn’t be underlined by default or on hover. It should have some other hover state.

Testing the decision tree

Let’s take the example of a control for launching a modal dialogue.

The obvious choice is a button, because the control causes something to change on the current page. In this case it causes a dialogue to appear on the current page.

Some might argue that it could be a link. This is usually influenced by the fact that dialogues are often (perhaps inadvisably) used as a kind of “fake page”. And to get someone to a “page” we use a link, right? Advocates of the link option might also have progressive enhancement in mind. If they present a link either to a named fragment further down the page or to a separate page, that offers a resilient baseline experience regardless of whether or not JavaScript is available. The idea is that they also have JavaScript to enhance the link when the user’s environment supports it, perhaps adding role=button.

However a button is the more accessible and user-friendly approach for launching the modal.

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