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I was wondering if there is a reason why most desktop applications don't user a pointer cursor (pointing hand, see below) to show that a button or element is clickable, but always show the default cursor (arrow).

Is this just a convention or is there actually a good reason behind this behaviour?

pointer or pointing hand

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  • Can you clarify the question? A button that is available (clickable) is indicated by shape and color according to guidelines for standard desktop GUIs (Windows, Mac). An unavailable button is dimmed (often said to be "grayed out"). Are you asking why the pointer ("cursor") doesn't look like a pointer when it hovers on a button? In most cases, the pointer is a pointer. In Word for example, the pointer is an insertion point or bar when it is over text, but becomes a pointer when over a control that can be clicked.
    – user8356
    Sep 1 at 17:09
  • @user8356: I think you're getting confused between the arrow cursor (which you call "pointer") and the pointing-hand cursor (which various UI frameworks call "pointer" in their API). Sep 2 at 15:23
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On many occasions, "standards/conventions" are created as a solution to a widespread problem. And, most of these never get updated/changed/removed even after they become obsolete.

When the internet was a new concept, websites or web pages were all about information. They were also alien in terms of concept and people didn't quite understand what they were and how they worked. This made hyperlinks even more confusing.

Until, the Mickey cursor was introduced. The pointing hand cursor originated as a PC cursor in HyperCard [Reference] as an accessibility feature and it became clear to people that it was very helpful.

This was soon ported over as a standard for hyperlinks in web content and it has since stayed the standard despite many improvements in the accessibility for CTAs in HTML.

However, PC applications were inherently interactive and didn't need a special indicator cursor to inform the user about that. Over time, operating systems have removed the pointing hand cursor as accessibility has come a long way.

Also, it's a lot easier to implement such improvements on a global basis with an OS as compared to the internet

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