The Alarmingly Seductive Magic Belsize Button #cabb

Perhaps the most seductive button in the world is located in Zone 2 North West London. This button is irresistible to some despite big warnings to stay away. Similar to how mermaids draw sailors toward rocks, or how mosquitos are drawn to bright lights, this button has a magical pull that challenges normal notions of rational behaviour. But enough build up, let’s take a look.

Oooooo nice eh? It’s a button to activate the alarm in the lift at Belsize Park tube station. It sits in one corner of the lift, at chest height. On the opposite side of the lift is a much more normal looking button, hereafter referred to as the lift button. On entering the lift a voice announces, “To operate the lift please push the button.” It seems to repeat this a number of times regardless of whether the lift button is pressed or not. But this story isn’t about the poor feedback or poor interaction of the lift button, it is about the alarmingly seductive button opposite that still attracts people to press it even normal situations when layers of signage to indicate not to.

Just the other day I was in the lift: “To operate the lift please push the button”  the automated lift voice announced again despite me having pressed it already. A newcomer to the lift pressed the lift button not knowing I had already pressed it; I said nothing. As we waited the lift filled up further and eventually the voice went again, “To operate the lift please push the button”. This time a different newcomer ushered to a person toward the front of the lift, “Could you push that button please?” pointing to the alarm button. “No!” I exclaimed, “That’s the alarm.” Surely this guy could read though??

If we look at the picture of the alarm button it certainly seems pretty damn obvious that it’s an alarm button that should only be pressed in an emergency. The actual button has a yellow bell on, there is an official warning in blue, and presumably because these two have previously failed staff have added their own not so subtle ‘ALARM ONLY’ sign. What sort of an idiot could miss this? The signs are so salient that we’d expect only a special kind of idiot would miss them – perhaps even a level 5. But no, I’d argue that this isn’t too out of the ordinary. Infact, you or I could do it. It happens when our body engages with interaction but our conscious mind does not. Apologies to the psychologists for the loose terminology here – what we’re trying to get across is that there are different levels of thinking in the mind, and that you can find your body doing things in the world at lower levels of thinking, long before higher levels of thinking like conscious thought have kicked in. These different levels of thinking and action are displayed in Norman’s Perception-Action Cycle.

So what we believe happens is that the mind is operating at some basic level of thinking and we have a sequence that looks roughly like the following:  1) push button request; 2) where is button; 3) oooo found button; 4) press button. This sequence will activate unless something stops it causing the mind to reflect, e.g. someone else interrupts by shouting “No!” or some higher level processing in their mind interrupts and says “No!” because it has picked up on the alarming signs. This of course doesn’t always happen.

We see this lower level thinking happen when an object affords some action but we are told to do something else. Norman, in The Design of Everyday Things, draws our attention to doors that afford pulling because they have a handle, so we pull it. It is only when we fail that we look and read the door that it says push, so we push it. We think we’re dumb because we should have seen it but actually a different affordance would have helped our lower level processing have the correct interaction style in the first place, e.g. a flat plate to push the door so we couldn’t pull it.

Our minds rely a lot on lower level thinking. We just don’t realise it because we’re not consciously in the driving seat so to speak. Like when we find ourselves looking into the fridge with no idea why we’re there, or when we find ourselves at work but we can’t recall the details of the journey that we’ve just made to get us there.

Rather than ever more signage I think the button should have a clear plastic shield placed over it. This would prevent anyone actually pressing it even if they tried to, this’d bring their higher level thinking into play to realise it’s actually an alarm button, and if it is needed for an alarm then it should be easily removed or broken so it could be pressed.

You can see an update of the button and its signage to your right, which reminds me of a phrase: If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got. The story of the man that wanted the button pressed above actually involved this extra supa dupa salient signage!

Button Affordance 2(two) V Button Signage Salience 0(nil)

This blog was brought to you by CABB: Campaign Against Bad Buttons. See the video Why Buttons Go Bad. We think the world should be full of better buttons and less idiots.

N.B. Mistakes such as these are shared on


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