Why icons alone won’t save your navigation

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There is also the old joke of a kid seeing a floppy disk for the first time and asking his Dad why he has a 3D printed version of the save icon.

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This article was inspired by a conversation I had with Ryan Warrender on our Podcast Design Huddle.

Well a while back when I was on Twitter, a Japanese user’s asked an important question about Microsoft Excel’s UI, and the question was “Why is the save icon a vending machine?”

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Tweet & Vending machine


This user’s experience is not uncommon. The last time I saw a floppy disk was around 20 years ago, and even then they were seldom used. So the unfamiliar shape is interpreted as the closest thing they can associate it with, square with glass, kind of like a vending machine.

Without a label, the user is lost, even with 20+ years of the floppy disk icon being the metaphor for saving.

Icons are useful for power users or returning users, as they understand their function, and we will read them quicker than say a label. For example, with Microsoft’s Outlook toolbar, except for the Delete button, non-experts used any of the toolbar buttons until they added labels.

Microsoft tried many different approaches to increase engagement, including newer icons, rearranging them, changing their position in the UI, but in the end, adding labels increased usage.

People have a fear of what they don’t understand, and if there is a possibility they could lose their work in Word Or Excel, then they won’t click or tap.

 

Are you a detective?


Another example was when I was working on my talk ‘Designing for Speed, Designing for Fiction’, I had a bunch of icons up on my laptop screen including the Magnifying Glass icon (🔍). My daughter walked into my study and asked ‘Are you a detective?’. It hadn’t occurred to me that the search icon could be related to Sherlock Holmes.

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Image: Wikipedia


In the UK we are brought up with the detective archetype, Sherlock Homles hat, pipe, and magnifying glass. However in rural India, when Amazon did a study on their search bar, Indian users asked ‘Why is the search icon a ping-pong paddle?’.

Icons are great for power users, not so great for new users, or international users who do not understand the metaphors. So relying on them solely for important interactions will confuse at best, and no engagement whatsoever at worst. Of course, you might note that ‘Doesn’t Google Search use an icon and no label?’. This is true but then there are no other UI elements on the search page, so users will quickly learn what to do.

 

But are there any positives of using icons


Icons are great for secondtime users, saving space, and great for consistency if you have a range of apps or sites that use the same icons.

The downside of no clarity is every bit of UI becomes a distraction. Think of every bit of UI as if it is a question or command, and each one is vying for the user’s attention. The more you are asking, the less gets done as there is no focus. The less you ask, the more focused and guided the user becomes. No amount of iconography will save a designing asking or commanding a user to do too many things.

So my advice is, icons are great. But always use a label.

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