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We have an application, that due to factors outside of our control (legal/regulatory), has some very complex rule sets. Because of this, we need users to read a short amount of context on a modal the first time they hit a specific page, about actions they should take.

That being said, we have been discussing the idea of having a button to close the modal with specific text (e.g. "I understand"), in hopes that it will entice to user to read an interpret the text. It seems to work okay in moderated usability testing, but I am attributing some of this to Hawthorne Effect.

Are there any studies on different types of button text and the likelihood that it will influence certain actions, such as reading text before clicking?

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I don't think that such studies exists, since it is very specific, but you should think about two things :

  • Do people care about the displayed text ? I think about User Agreement etc, that no one reads, even if certains mecanismes exists to "force" the user to read it. I suggest you to take a look at this What's the best way to make a user read terms and conditions before continuing a form? since it looks like your problem.
  • Who are the people using the application ? In such situations it's difficult to "force" the user to read your text. But depending on who is using your application, you may not have to over emphasize the fact that your user must read it. I'd rather place a big "Legal Agreement" label or something on the top of the modal, in order to make the user understand instantly what the modal is dealing with without reading all that text, and if the user has interest with it chances are that he will read it. I think that coupling this with one the mecanisms described in the answer above would work pretty well. To make it short : cath the user attention about the fact that this is legal rules.
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