Icons – An Easier Way to Work?

You know them – the dreaded icon. Derived from the Russian Icon, a religious picture, they have been adopted with religious fervor among computer programmers everywhere. These little picture shortcuts in programs are designed to make it easy to find commands and functions, since we all know we are visually oriented beasties.

Right off let me say that icons are bad. This is not just my opinion, but also that of human interface designers everywhere. I read quite a few books on the subject, and they are all in agreement that while icons can be useful, they are rarely as good or better than the alternative – text.

For example, as I’m writing this with Microsoft Word, I see along the top the various program icons: a big white page (New), an open folder (Open), a disk (Save), a printer (Print), and so forth, which is all reasonably helpful and straightforward (although it’s not immediately obvious if the disk icon refers to Disk Load or Disk Save).

But then things get tricky. The next icon is a page with a magnifying glass. Zoom? It’s print preview. Next to that is a clipboard – is it cut, copy or paste? And yet another is a green and blue circle with a row of little circles at the bottom – try and guess what THAT is.

A major problem with icons is that it is nearly impossible to represent all features of a program with an easy to understand picture. In the last example, the icon is to insert a hyperlink – the green and blue circle is the earth, and the circles represented a chain link. How’s that for obscure?

One of the main reasons given for using icons is that they make translation easier; in the hyperlink example, it’s obvious the icon won’t translate well, unless the other language uses the exact same wording for both chain link and Internet link. Otherwise, the connection makes no sense.

Further proof that icons aren’t working is with tool tips. Hold your mouse over most icons, and a textual tool tip pops up, explaining the command. Now our shortcut icons are in need of shortcut explanations, and we obviously have problems. Honestly, how often have you used a tool tip to understand an icon?

The solution? Fewer icons. And use text. I recently worked with a browser that changed the icons to text buttons – and I liked it. No more hunting for the little house icon (which in the beginning took me awhile to figure out meant home) – just click on ‘Home’.

In fact, why use icons at all? They take up screen space, often make no sense, need further explanations to explain themselves, and are rarely well designed. Programmers, strike a blow for the customer and hide your icons!

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