The little button that could

The original issue

A link is used to perform the action of a button. The code below is used to show a region of the page which is hidden by default. Screen readers will read this code as a link and expect that it will navigate. Instead, upon activating this link, focus remains on the link and performs an action of a button.

<a id="x_123" class="niftyNuBtn" href="javascript:;">Do Something</a>

As a consequence, we recommend using an actual BUTTON element:

<button id="x_123" class="niftyNuBtn">Do Something</button>

The response

We can’t use a BUTTON because it would not look right with our CSS. Our stylesheets all reference this as a.niftyNuBtn. Why is this a problem anyway?

The follow-up

Well, there are two primary issues, the first of which is admittedly a little about semantic purity in that a button is a button and a link is a link. But there’s a bit more to it: users who can see an affordance which looks like a button will intuit immediately that it will (or should) behave like a button. And, were it to look like a link, they would intuit that it is a link. For a user who cannot see, or whose vision is very poor, may be using an assistive technology which reads out the properties of an underlying object. In short, a BUTTON will be announced via text-to-speech as "button". A button’s behavior and a link’s behavior are distinctly different – a button initiates an action in the current context whereas a link changes the context by navigating to a new resource. In order to meet users’ expectations of how this affordance will perform, it should be a button.

The follow-up’s response

Our engineer said we can use WAI-ARIA for this. He said that we can give this thing a button role which will mean that JAWS will announce this as a button and that will alleviate your earlier concerns. So, how about this:

<a id="x_123" class="niftyNuBtn" role="button" href="javascript:;">Do Something</a>

Almost there, I think

Yes. This will cause aria-supporting assistive technologies to announce this link as a button. Unfortunately, there's the issue of focus management and this impacts more than just users who are blind. A link is understood to change focus to a new resource. Buttons may or may not change focus, depending on the action being performed. In this specific button's case, focus should stay on the button. At first glance, you may think that this pseudo-button is doing what it needs to be doing because you're keeping focus on the button when the user clicks it. That's true. What's also true is focus stays on it when you hit the enter key, which is also fine. Unfortunately, activating it with the spacebar causes the page to scroll. Users who interact with their computer using only the keyboard will expect that they can activate the button with the spacebar as well. Overall the best option is to just use a button.

Digging in

Crap, you're right. Our engineer added the button role and everything was great, but then I hit the spacebar and the page scrolled! How do we stop this?!?

Prevent Default

Actually, stopping the scrolling is pretty easy. You can use event.preventDefault() like so:
$('.niftyNuBtn').on('click, keypress' function(event){
        if(event.type === 'click'){
        else if(event.type === keypress){
            var code = event.charCode || event.keyCode;
            if((code === 32) || (code === 13)){

Keep in mind, you'll need to do this event.preventDefault(); on every instance where you have code that acts like a button.


Turns out we've decided to use a button. All we needed to do was change a few CSS declarations. Thanks so much for the help.

Note: no, this isn't from a real client but actually reminiscent of multiple situations.

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