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I am a Software Quality Assurance (SQA) manager for a complex geology and geophysics software application. Recently I heard my SQA team complaining about the heavy handedness of the UX teams. They were replacing buttons with hyperlinks for no other reason that to be "with it".

The trouble is, that our client base tend to be older, our work flows tend to be interpretive, and this kind of disruptive change is just the kind of thing to keep clients from upgrading to the new version. It not only disrupts their workflow, but for those of us with old eyes, the hypertext is harder to read without increasing screen resolution which as it usually does, blows the window formatting all to hell resulting in truncated text fields and frames.

What is the accepted wisdom on hypertext link usage in desktop apps that use local or network databases?

I am not talking web apps, but locally installed desktop apps.

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Probably not

Hyperlinks and buttons have very different UX suitability.


Hyperlinks

  • Hyperlinks are suitable for space constrained situations (e.g. inline text, toolbars, or menus) or situations where buttons would be too intrusive (see this for example).

enter image description here

  • Hyperlinks are also popular in consumer (non-expert) applications where a designer wants highlight more important call-to-action buttons (e.g. Buy now) and avoid other onscreen buttons competing for attention: enter image description here

  • See this stackexchange question for more details


Buttons

  • When space or visual clutter is not constrained, buttons are usually a better solution than hyperlinks because they are much easier to use with mouse or touch interfaces. Fitt's law explains why. This is as true for younger workers as it is for older workers!
  • Buttons tend to be more suitable for expert/technical applications where productivity and accuracy is more important that how an interface looks. Here's a wireframe for a fictitious technical application where buttons have been color coded and sized according to frequency of use....productivity here is more important than appearance:

enter image description here

  • As a result, good technical interfaces tend to employ large, clear, and well organized buttons for frequently used commands, with less important commands relegated to hyperlinks, menus or toolbars to save space.

If your UX team has shifted controls to hyperlinks just for the sake of more modern looks, then that is a failure of UX design intent.

If they are doing it for ergonomic reasons (to save space for other larger controls or important information displays) then there may be a reasoned tradeoff. Another common reason for a shift to hyperlinks is preparation for a mobile version of the software (where space is a premium).


Bottom line

One easy way to tell whether this was a good design decision is to ask yourself and your team of users:

Will this interface help me do my job faster or more accurately once I learn the interface?

You have to set aside the learning curve for the sake of intellectual honesty (it's a one-time effort).

If the answer is NO, then your UX team has made the interface worse, not better, and by definition the design has failed.

  • I agree with a lot of this, but much of it seems highly dependent on implementation. For example, buttons aren't necessarily any more/less accurate than a link. It's all in the implementation. I don't now if I understand your 'buttons are for experts, links for non-experts' logic, either. – DA01 Apr 30 '15 at 18:14
  • good points....some of the paragraphs were horribly written here. i've edited it and added some illustrations to convey the principles (hopefully) better. – tohster Apr 30 '15 at 22:15
  • Good improvements, though I'm not convinced there's a pro/consumer split here. The Amazon example is great...but isn't really an example of consumer vs. pro, but rather simply emphasizing a primary action vs secondary actions--which could be equally useful in an 'expert' UI as well (in fact, that second example is rather cluttered with too many buttons, IMHO. It could stand to have some of the secondary tasks visualized more as hyperlinks. – DA01 Apr 30 '15 at 22:21
  • @DA01 the point is that expert interfaces have different tolerances on the aesthetic-productivity tradeoff. For a rapid-fire stock trading interface where mistakes are costly, replacing some of those buttons with hyperlinks (1) makes the boundaries of the control unclear, which increases access time for mouse or touch interfaces; and (2) reduces their orientation in the user's peripheral vision for professional use where users may be frequently focused on Buy/Sell actions but need to quickly access the other buttons less frequently. – tohster Apr 30 '15 at 22:27
  • I think those are valid concerns--but not necessarily solved by buttons vs links. One could argue that on a busy app like the stock app that strong visual contrast between options beyond color, alone, is also very important. i just think it's an oversimplification to imply 'pro' = button. There are many other key factors. – DA01 May 1 '15 at 0:13
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They were replacing buttons with hyperlinks for no other reason that to be "with it".

Did the UX team actually say that was the reason for replacing buttons with hyperlinked text? I can think of other reasons why they'd do this. Maybe there are too many buttons of equal emphasis on the screen and they wanted to create hierarchy by leaving the most important action as a button and making less critical or less used actions as hyperlinks. Maybe they were implementing Fitts's Law, which when applied to UX means that it's faster to navigate to bigger targets and a hyperlink with several words in it may be a bigger target than a button with one word on it.

Regardless of their reasoning, you'll only know for certain if their changes improve usability by testing both versions of the application. Ask the UX team to test both versions and ask to observe the tests. Usually you'll want to observe the tests while out of view, either behind a mirror in a testing room or while watching a remote or recorded version of the tests. User testing with your intended audience will tell you which is option is preferable for your audience.

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    +1 for testing. That's the issue here more than anything else. – DA01 Apr 30 '15 at 18:15
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Even just 5 years ago there's likely be strong consensus that links are for navigation, buttons for interacting with data.

But you won't find that consensus today at all. Today you're as likely to find a button for navigation as a link to interact with data.

And that's OK as long as thought was put into it so that it is usable for your target audience.

I don't think the issue you are having has much to do with links vs. buttons, but possibly a lack of actual user-testing. Solve the latter and the former will fix itself.

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UX teams should not be doing anything because it is "with it." They ought to be determining how people are using the application; what they're trying to do while using it and coming up with ways to make the user's interaction with the software be as effortless as possible.

Sometimes things are disruptive such as going from a DOS based system (yes they still exist) to a GUI.

If I were you I would ask them how did they come to the conclusion to remove buttons and replace them with hyperlinks. Have them explain their thought process. A good UX team will have solid answers to this question.

  • I mostly agree, though the reality is that UX teams do have to deal with what is 'with it' quite often as well. Like it or not, we often are dictated by marketing trends as much a business objectives (which, granted, are often marketing related to begin with) – DA01 Apr 30 '15 at 18:11
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I'd say keep things within the mental model of the users: hyperlinks redirect users to screens/ pages (I'm leaving this page; I can open this in a new tab, etc); buttons perform some kind of action that may or may not also include change in navigation.

Hyperlinks (which are a different color to capture users' attention) could be used as references to take people to other pages (Read more, learn here, etc) while buttons are for actions (submit, pay, do something!)

If your internal portal has a lot of Read More buttons then I'd say just limit them to one visually representative one per page/section if you'd rather have those be more prominent than hyperlinks.

  • I'd agree with this if this was several years ago, but I think today--especially on the web--that mental model isn't rigid at all anymore. Buttons and links are now used interchangeably in a lot of situations. – DA01 Apr 30 '15 at 18:12

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