Difference Between Links and Actions

During the conversation with Jerry, where I waxed lyrical about cancel buttons, I also banged on about the importance of differentiating between a page's "hotspots" that are links and those that are actions. For example a link is something that simply changes pages, like taking you back to the homepage, while an action is a hotspot that saves a document or puts in edit mode. It's important to distinguish between the two on a page.

Obviously this is merely my opinion and is open to change. After talking about the redundancy of the "Cancel button" and the resulting comments you guys made I found myself changing direction. You were right - it's not about what we think the user should or shouldn't see. It's about giving them what they are used to working with. A cancel button for example, where it seems fitting.

Well, what about action buttons then? Personally I think that anything that is an action (Edit, Save, Submit etc) should be a button and anything that a link (Home, Return to View etc) should be, well, a simple link. You can see this in effect when you use Hotmail:

Hotmail screenshot

Notice how there's a row of pseudo-buttons above the messages. Each one is an action. Notice also that there is a set of simple links to the left of the messages that take users to different folders. It's easy to distinguished between them and they remain constant throughout the Hotmail interface. Users like this (I think) and it's how I like to design sites. Although my buttons tend to look more like buttons.

Again, I am open to discussion and the fact that some of you may disagree entirely.


    • avatar
    • Aden
    • Thu 22 Apr 2004 07:18

    It just occured to me that this is such a neat and often overlooked method when looking at navigation/action issues, I will deffo be using such a format in future.

  1. I think the more general idea within this post is visual differentiation and consistancy.

    If all of your actions look the same, are grouped together, and located in a similar area on each page, users will know they are actions. This goes the same for links.

    As long as there is clear differentiation between the two functions (links and actions), I personally don't think it is necessary to use actual "buttons" for actions.

  2. In my experience, it is always been about doing what the customer wants vs. what makes sense in terms of navigation/action buttons. I have been asked to add "Back" buttons to my forms for years despite the fact that every browser has a "Back" button that does exactly what they are asking for. It has always seemed silly to me to have two buttons available that do the exact same thing.

    • avatar
    • Jake
    • Thu 22 Apr 2004 08:29

    You're right Doug. That's what I am getting at. It came up because Jerry showed me a page where all links and actions were simple text links in one row at the top of the page. Confusing.

    Curt. I agree. There's nothing less impressive than a link on a page called "Add to Favourites" or a Print button that simply called .print(). No need!

    • avatar
    • Trent
    • Thu 22 Apr 2004 10:16

    When I first loaded your page, I saw the Hotmail pic and thought you were going to use it as an example of what *not* to do.

    One of the infuriating things about the Hotmail interface is that the links aren't really links, they're JavaScript calls. Even links inside your emails get converted to JavaScript calls. This pretty much kills Mozilla's ability to open links in tabs.

    Overall, Jake, I agree with your assessment. When I think "link", I think of a connection between static pages. Navigating with links are like dancing on the surface. When I click a "button", though, I feel that I am interacting with the system on a deeper level.

    Hmm, I wonder if buttons scare people in a way that links don't? Is a Help Link less intimidating than a Help Button?

    • avatar
    • Jake
    • Thu 22 Apr 2004 11:39

    Trent. I was thinking more in terms of appearance of the buttons rather than how they've coded them.

    • avatar
    • laurens
    • Thu 22 Apr 2004 13:11

    Congrats with your new RockAll design logo on the right menu!

    • avatar
    • James Jennett
    • Fri 23 Apr 2004 06:01

    "Congrats with your new RockAll design logo on the right menu!"

    Hmmm... MUST.. RESIST...Temptation to parody it with F*ckall... :)

    • avatar
    • James again
    • Fri 23 Apr 2004 06:06

    Seriously though, I did a system where the punter logs in, and depending on what roles they have, they get to see x amount of actions. The wording of each action was fairly long, so there was a finite amount of room for laying them accross the top without resorting to stacking the title of each action on >1 row of text eg.

    Add Amend Delete Add Amend Delete

    Thing1 Thing1 Thing1 Thing2 Thing2 Thing2

    Form Form Form Form Form Form

    From To

    • avatar
    • Must remember to type everythiung before I Post It
    • Fri 23 Apr 2004 06:15

    So there were so many options that they wanted (it was a rework of a mainframe app where they were used to putting an X against a screen of about 40 grouped options) that you HAVE to encapsulate with folding menus.

    It seemed that they were all familiar with folding out views and folders on the in Notes and the OS on the LHS so I just did the otions there - also allows you to stack longer labels there.

    I really hated it as I am a zenimalist and hate having multiple ways of doing the same thing, but they were all "I must be important because I've covered my wallpaper with icons" types and stuck in the mainframe mindset.

    They were paying the piper, so it was turned in with gritted teeth.


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Written by Jake Howlett on Thu 22 Apr 2004

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