The insidious design behind The Button

And how a constant crowd of thousands made this April Fool’s joke into a thought experiment

Clinton Nguyen
Apr 4, 2015 · 6 min read

It’s 2015 and somehow we’ve made watching paint dry into a viewing party. But unlike watching paint dry, imagine someone generously reapplying another coat every few seconds gently reminding you that it’ll dry, one day down the line. This is essentially the conceit behind of one of Reddit’s most devious April Fool’s jokes.

Here’s a button. You can choose to press it. You can choose to not press it. There’s a timer so you can tell how long it’s been since someone’s pressed it. Once you’ve pressed it, you can’t press it again. You can also see how many people have already pressed it: it’s well over 550,000 as of writing, roughly a third of Reddit’s daily active users. But if you know the extent of the Internet’s temerity and its capacity to ruin anyone’s day, you’ll know that the population isn’t split between “the pressers” and “the non-pressers,” but “the pressers” and “those who have yet to press.”

The project comes off less as an April Fool’s joke than it does a rather small-scale social experiment, at least in Internet numbers. ~6–10,000 concurrent viewers isn’t much for a website the scale of Reddit, but it is enough to staunch the hopes of anyone looking for that timer to reach zero.

It’s April 4, and we’re still here. How?

Turns out there are a couple design touches that allowed this thing to exceed its life as a joke and go on to become something that’s weirdly real.

The “case”

The button itself is worth discussing because it falls under what designers would consider a semi-flat design. It’s especially popular in web design, and has become a sort of happy middle-ground between iPod-era skeumorphism and the aggressive flat redesign pushed forward by Android’s Material Design and Apple’s iOS 7.

The grey lock background stops users from any errant clicks but the eased transitions don’t make it any easier for users to not want to click it. Look at how easily it slides off. And Jesus, look at how deliciously clickable that button is underneath it. It’s the digital analogue to popping bubble wrap. Except you can only do it once.

Erik Kennedy wrote a great layman’s account on how user experience works, the faults and failings of both flat and skeuomorphic designs and how “flat-ish design” tries to find a happy medium between the two. The subtle dimensionality of the button exemplifies what flat-ish design is going for: tactility without being too on the nose.

It’s also a nice blue. Why is this important?

In user experience, blue is a happy neutral color. It’s not green, which users could interpret as too explicit a go ahead, even goading. It’s not red, which no one except maybe slight sociopaths would press. All other colors are either ineffective or have some specific denotations like how road sign shapes and colors have specific denotations, but blue is different. Blue, in UX color theory, is kind of like an “OK” button. It’s fine if you click it, but also fine if you don’t, but really… who are you trying to kid?

And of course, the alt text once you hover over the button for a few seconds:

Alt text for the Button once you unlock the “case.”

All of this boils down to a visual egging, some more explicit (alt text) and some less (flat design, eased transitions) which is of course compounded by the Reddit community’s clannish tendency to gang up on each other and argue about dumb things to no end. This whole gig wasn’t about pressing or not pressing. It’s about how long it’ll be until you break.

The flair

Reddit has managed to gamify their own badge system to keep this thing alive. On Reddit there’s a pseudo-badge system called “flair” that allows users to set an image, text, title, whatever next to their username. On r/thebutton, they act more like team colors: non-pressers get a dull grey badge — I imagine that’s the exact color of stoicism — and pressers, well, they have a lot of options. Some of which they’re uncovering slowly.

Looking at this screencap, the flair would be the blue “50s” label next to the username. That’s what you get permission to use when you press the button after no one else has after 10 seconds (50 seconds left on the clock).

But waiting even further, you get more colors.

What drives kids, manchildren or otherwise, crazier than colors and exclusivity? The use of color to further visual hierarchy in design has a deep history that’s basically ingrained in our understanding of things. Sneaker companies have leveraged it in limited edition colorways. You can see it in patches and militaria. You see it in old video games, where the blue palette swapped guy’s probably easier to take on than the red palette swap guy. Roman aristocrats had generations of Tyrian snails snuffed to pimp out their sashes. We could go on, but you get it.

Once users understand there’s something in it for them if they wait (other than the satisfaction of witnessing what happens when the timer hits 0), behaviors shift and people act rationally based on how long they’re willing to wait for certain colors. You had the flurry of people using their only shot at 51–60 seconds. These are the trigger-happy settlers in your life and are probably not to be trusted, especially where buttons and big decisions are concerned. Go further than that and you slowly whittle down the crowd by patience level until you’re waiting 30–40 seconds between presses. Pretty brutal.

What is this even?

So we understand that this whole experiment is begging you in big and small ways to press the button. But what is this and why? It’s a little too thought out to be a straight up joke. And if it is, its payoff is measuring in weeks, not minutes as most April Fool’s pranks end up.

It also can’t be just a joke because otherwise Reddit admins are losing out on some very precious data. This could easily be long-running and is also far easier to organize than a flash mob. You can measure patience in a game-like situation, extrapolate human behaviors in what’s essentially a perfectly-constructed black box.

All sociological investigations work under the same parameters: given X information, Y people involved, what would you do? Given that this is sort of stuff people are paid to take surveys for (and usually with smaller volumes over much longer time), you’d be hard-pressed to find a place more efficient and more self-aware than Reddit to ask the exact same questions. You will find, however, that we’re all observers of a very odd, but very sensible truth that goes well beyond the discussion of a single button.

We’re being gamed and we damn well enjoy it.

Clinton Nguyen

Written by

rejected pitches, mostly

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