Remind me later: the online buttons saga

In the digital world, the opposite of ‘yes’ is not ‘no’, but things like: ‘remind me later’, ‘not now’, ‘ask me again later’, or ‘I don’t want my benefits’.

I walk into a shop. I see a nice blue dress on sale, but I hesitate and hang it back on the rack. Then a saleswoman takes it out again, hangs it on my forearm and insists: “Do you want to try it on?” I want to say “Nno, I left it for a reason, I won’t ever buy it.”. But all that comes out of my mouth is: “Not for now.”

The saleswoman follows me with the dress, waiting for me to change my mind. I head to the exit but, just before the door, a sign blocks my way. It says: “Are you sure you want to leave and miss out on the discount?” I want to shout that I’m leaving and I really don’t care about the discount. But I can only mutter, defeated: “Yes, I want to miss out.”

This didn’t happen to me in real life, but it happens every day on the web. In the digital world, the opposite of ‘yes’ is not ‘no’, but one of these variants: ‘remind me later’, ‘not now’, ‘ask me again later’, or ‘I don’t want my benefits’.

All these buttons are known in web slang as ‘calls to action‘ (CTAs) and they are the GPS of digital navigation. They tell us where to go, how to follow, how to enter and exit any place – page, app, or content section – that interests us (or not so much). In addition to offering us choices, buttons give us commands: send, subscribe, contact us, download, read more.

In recent years, with the sophistication of usability – the craft of guiding us online – this bossy language has gained a more friendly tone. Boti, the chatbot from Buenos Aires City, tells me: “Good news, Sonia! Your test is negative!”. Airbnb seduces me: “Open your door to hosting.”. Twitter doesn’t tell me to write a post but just asks me: “What’s going on?” These friendly little signs are everywhere, like street signs, only they accompany us to bed on our mobile phones. And they are manipulative – disguising their wants and needs with that amicable tone.

Buttons have marked human progress. Before electricity, things were operated by pure force and muscle, with hands and levers, ropes and wheels. The appearance of buttons in the 20th century was like magic, hiding the mechanisms they operate . We simply press a button and things happen. We wish everything were this easy.

Buttons have now multiplied on the web, adding to the mystery of what happens in the black box of our devices. In reality, these buttons have always been links that take us somewhere else, but in the early days of the internet they were blue and underlined. Back then, there were also buttons designed in 3D, so we still felt we were pressing them. They had terrifying commands like enter, reset, and abort! All written for engineers or machines.

Usability illustrates a truth that, like buttons, has been with us for a long time: information always involves architecture. All the decisions we make are biased by the choices available, and the form and sequence in which they are presented to us. A small adjustment in that architecture can help you make up your mind. A classic example is the ‘default option’. If an option is pre-checked, very few of us will take the trouble to change it.

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book Nudge popularised the idea that harnessing information architecture can improve public life. Your license renewal might make organ donation a default option, for example, or your electricity bill might include specific messages on how to save energy. Nudge‘s ideas were not intended to boost sales. But marketing got a kick out of it. Today, mobile phones default to the manufacturer’s advertising ringtone, streaming series don’t end, but are linked with others through a ‘keep watching’ button, and we are automatically subscribed to newsletters we never asked for.

What if we want to sleep in and can’t find the ‘no’ option in the training app? Where do I click if I don’t want to go to the event, I’m very happy with my decision, and yes, I’m quite happy to miss out? For all of us… there are no options. The strings (or buttons) of marketing discourse have been exposed. Perhaps, as always happens with the pendulums of the web, they will soon return to offer us more binary, rude but direct alternatives. Like ‘yes’ or ‘no’.


By Sonia Jalfin

Director of Sociopúblico


We published this article first in La Nación (so here’s the link in case you want to practice your Spanish).

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