icons and functionality blog

Icons and functionality

There is a phrase that is sometimes used within design, ‘labels are the best icons’ and Don Norman who lectured Apple in con design said: “Inscrutable icons litter the face of devices even though the research community has a long demonstrated that people cannot remember the meaning of more than a small number of icons.

Who can remember what each icon means? Not me”. Don raises an important point. After all, in all the years we have been using computers, no-one has been able to design a universally recognisable icon for Save, Copy and Paste!

If that is the case, the word is more functional and there is less chance of confusion but it’s all just a little plain and boring. Somehow the word feels like hard work in comparison to an icon but it is the rational choice. Humans however are both rational and emotional and the emotional side is comforted by the visual icon.

So, what about the icon on its own. Surely a well-designed icon can get around the issues of recognition and understanding? The icon pleases our emotional side and somehow makes the content seem less complicated. An issue I have come across with doing this however is that for things such as ‘Cut’ you use scissors, ‘Trash’ you use a bin. But what if I needed a rendering machine? I have no idea what one looks likes and by showing me a series of icons of several different styles of machines, no matter how pretty they are it immediately puts me off. I’m lost before I even get started.

Icons are fundamentally based on reality and recognition. I don’t recognise rendering machines, but the person whose website it appears on does. In this situation, the naked icon is a negative for the customer and should be avoided. The customer should always be the reason for icon inclusion or removal.

One option is to use both. An Icon with a label. A win-win situation. If you don’t get the icon, the label will explain. But you are now compromising on your original design. Unfortunately, there is never really a situation in design where compromise isn’t required and this is a demonstration as to why design is a fluid process, with changes and compromises happening all the time.

Everyone has a preference to styles, colours and imagery, and icons are no different. However, the debate should be when and where do we use labels and icons and will it be of detriment to the end user?

Too many people sticking an icon on a website is neither here nor there, it is the conversion at the end that matters the most. It’s a small detail within a large website, document or app.

At Talk to Media we understand that the small details are just as important as the large and that ultimately a single small detail can be the difference between the customer converting and the customer converting with your competition.

To find out more, please give us a call today on 01302 613 000

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