The Need for Control – What We Can Learn from Placebo Button

If you checked the design principles of making good designs, you’ll easily find out that good design always has a high correlation with psychology. For most of the time, human beings need to “understand” the design through all our sensations. We see objects to read the signifier that would help us to make the first move, then we touch it to check the logic mainly based on the mapping logic through the feedback. The desire of understanding things comes from “control”. By fulfilling the need for control, designers would be able to create better usability and UX. Placebo button is the most common one that makes the better UX but not better usability that fulfills the need for control. Thus, I’d like to share what I’ve learned from the placebo button and apply it to create better usability.

Born to choose

Before we right jump into applying placebo button in design, understanding the fundamental of human nature: born to choose-in order to control, would really help you make a better design solution on top of the theory. Scientists already have shown a lot of evidence to prove that the human race is born to have the need for control. I’d like to walk you through an overview of this human instinct from both biological and psychological aspects, so you would know the origins and the value of fulfilling the need for control.

Biological aspect

Leotti, Iyengar, and Ochsner (2010) claim that there is a brain region programmed to perceive control in the environment in order to generate the responses to the threats in that situation, then evaluate the possibility of survival. That brain region also helps to modulate the responses and mediate the regulation of emotion. When negative emotion affect is caused by the removal or restriction of control, the brain region would also activate a protective mode to reduce the negative biological impact on the human body. Thus, the assumption of “automatic perception of control seems to be essential for healthy functioning” and might cause “various manifestations of psychopathology” when disrupting perceived control (Leotti, Iyengar, and Ochsne 2010).

Psychological aspect

There are two major control theories to explain how human beings react to control in different contexts. Locus of control explains” whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation) (Philip, 1985).” Illusion of control describes that people tend to “overestimate their ability to control events; for example, it occurs when someone feels a sense of control over outcomes that they demonstrably do not influence.” Both of the theories reach a conclusion that “the belief in one’s ability to exert control over the environment and to produce desired results is essential for an individual’s general wellbeing. (Leotti, Iyengar, and Ochsne 2010).”

The illusion of control is a usability issue

Fig 1. Placebo Button in Elevator

By far we’ve understood why there is always a need for control, and now let’s move on to how we can ensure good UX or usability by fulfilling the need. One of the most common approaches to fulfill the need for control is to apply placebo effect into designs, such as a refresh button in the app, or a crosswalk button in intersections. None of the button works, there is no direct connection between the action (pull/press) to the result, but it fulfills the need for control and makes the whole UX better since it’s “understandable” and fits the conceptual model.

However, sometimes this would cause usability issues since it can’t reflect the correct system status by giving feedback.
In my opinion, the notion of a placebo button is to “provide the users the feeling of control” in order to achieve better UX, not better usability since it’s kinda misleading. Thus, I’ll like to share my thoughts on how we should correctly use “the need for control” while designing products for better usability:

1. Give user choices, especially the undo or cancel option

Fig 2. Undo design created by 

Always provide users more than one options so they can “control” the results. Undo or cancel is essential since be able to recover from error can prevent some critical problems to happen.

2. Give users something to do when the system is down, but don’t fake the system status

Fig 3. Google Small Game When Offline

Give users something to do that is separate from the main operation when the system is down. A small game to play is a good idea to let users feeling that they can still control parts of the systemwithout frustration. Don’t fake the system status so the users would still know the further action to do when the system seems not recovering back to normal.

3.Provide a way to let users reflect their feedback, and show them you’ve heard it


Fig 4. Report Issue Feature in Google Map

Be able to communicate is also a way of control, by doing so, if the system eventually makes some changes, the users would think the environment is controllable. Even if you don’t take the suggestion, express that you’ve heard it still makes users think they have the power to control in some degree.

The placebo button reminds us of the importance of the “need for control”, not about to create the “illusion of control” that might cause potential usability issue, by doing it correctly, it could provide users both good UX and good usability.


The perception of control


Design Critique: Notes (iPhone App)

The iOS built-in Notes app empowers users’ note taking capability by providing seamless synchronization feature, supporting multimedia input/insert, and even integrating the sketch feature to simulate the analog note-taking experience. This article would critique the Notes App based on some usability factors mentioned by Don Norman’s book- The Design of Everyday Things.

1.Sketch directly in Notes

The icon follows most of the convention to indicate possible “drawing” behavior in this app, it’s easy to understand and the discoverability is good when it displays with other major action items on top of the keyboard. Once when users tap it, the drawing settings provide the signifier of refining the drawing needs, it showcases the options of brushes, colors, and even a selection tool. However, the mappings and feedback would have some room for improvement. Users might have learned the icon from built-in photo app and screenshot app that it can “mark” on top of photos, so they might assume they can sketch or highlight on top of the text paragraphs, but it can not. This inconsistency might mess up the knowledge in users’ head and creates confusion. Also, the UX inconsistency might bring users attention from the behavioral level to reflective level, since they’ve learned the skills to use the feature in other apps, but have to make a conscious decision when manipulating the same feature in Notes app.

To modify the icon of the sketch feature in Notes app, but keep some convention visual element to afford the “drawing/sketching” behavior, so the users would be able to tell the action is not mark in order to avoid the Description-Similarity slip. Also, Make the “unsketchable” area grey out when users tap the sketch icon to provide a visual indication of constraint, to simplify and restrict the drawing area even when users don’t draw anything yet.

2. Edit the sketch/note 

The “create new note” feature is pretty findable on the dashboard view since that’s the typical knowledge in the head for iOS users-action items located on the toolbar. Once users tap the create new note icon, the keypad with a bunch of major note taking action items slides up as the signifier/feedback of what Notes app can do, this also maps the correct result after tapping create a note icon. However, the mapping goes wrong when users want to edit the note. When users first time create the note, also means the note is being edited, there is a “done” button as the signifier for “done editing” behavior. But there is no “edit” button for “edit” behavior, and because of the knowledge in mind taught users that the “edit” icon looks really similar to “create a note” icon, so they might tap on that, then the result of the action is terrifying – bring users to a brand new page without any description, so users might think the work they’ve done might be gone.

In this case, to correct the mappings, I’ll suggest a lock-in action like a popup displays “Do you want to save this note and create a new note?”, so the users don’t suffer from the imprecise knowledge in mind and are guided by the precise knowledge in the world. Or provide a “back” or “undo” action item on top of the new note screen to deal with the slip.

3.Add a checklist to the note

The icon here doesn’t follow the convention of the checkbox in a checklist, instead of a square with a check mark, Apple decides to unify this icon with others in the row-a circle with a check mark. Its discoverability is good since all main action lines up on top of keypad together. The mapping makes sense with good visual feedback: after users tap it, an empty checkbox with await text input, but the signifiers of how users can interact with it are not clear enough (like can users check the checkbox when in edit mode?) The “add a checklist” behavior might apply the logical constraint for the interaction, so when users don’t type anything after the checkbox, and tap return on keypad, it deletes the empty checkbox. Because it makes no sense to create a checklist that lists nothing. But in the meantime, users might also think the mapping is wrong since they just tap return key and it doesn’t behave “correctly”.

When users tap to create a checklist, it should not only display an empty checkbox, but also a placeholder string as the signifier to indicate how to use this feature correctly. Also, even users don’t type anything then tap return, it should still behave as return behavior to unify the experience.