SIGIA-L Mail Archives: RE: SIGIA-L: same icon, different functi
RE: SIGIA-L: same icon, different function?
From: Scott Berkun (scottber_at_microsoft.com)
Date: Tue Jan 15 2002 - 22:25:59 EST
For the immediate problem you describe:
I'd go real world. Ask him why the icons on his car dashboard for "gas empty" and "seatbelt failure" are different. Or why Traffic lights have three different colors. Why the diet coke can has a different design than regular coke. The world is filled with similiar but different things, that use visuals, and icons to help seperate them. Another good one is the pictures outside the mens room and the woman's restroom :)
For more background here's some bits on icon theory:
On the fundamentals: icons have two different but important properties.
1) Function - Does the icon convey the concept or functionality it represents.
2) Support recognition - Is the icon memorable or unique, and facilitates identification after first use.
It's rare that most icons can do #1. Many concepts*, even in simple apps, simply don't have good iconic representations (For example: I worked on IE1.0-5.0 - we spent soooo much time trying to create a good icon for history.. it was damn near imposible). In those cases, designers try for at least #2. Often for #2, the primary attribute is making icons distinct enough that humans can learn to associate different things with each one. There are methods to measure #1 and #2, but that may take more time than you have.
Text labels are consistently faster to comprehend for most people. Text allows for more descrete identification, than visual or iconic (For most people anyway). But if the design has to work in multiple languages, text gets very complicated. And for tooltips: they are lousy as the only mechanism for disambiguation(!) of two items. Fitts's law is working against you, and you make #2 above impossible my visuals alone.
If a usability study is planned, and some of the tasks involve using the toolbars, guaranteed, your described design will cause lots of problems. It's depressing to use usability studies to catch obvious stuff, but with teams or devs new to usability/design/whatever, it often happens that way.
Forward this email to him. Maybe seeing this feedback from someone at Microsoft may help sway him to your side. Then again, it might not :)
Design & Usability Training Manager
*note: an argument is sometimes made that if a clear icon can't be made for something, than that feature probably should not exist, because users won't understand it. This isn't quite right - The design of the feature itself may be clear and obvious once active, but the moniker, the name of the feature, may be difficult to describe visually. The System 7 application menu on the Mac (if my memory serves), doesn't really satisfy #1 above, but definitely satisifes #2.
From: Ziya Oz [mailto:ZiyaOz_at_earthlink.net]
Sent: Tue 1/15/2002 5:47 PM
Subject: Re: SIGIA-L: same icon, different function?
> So is anyone out there aware of any instances where two icons,
> one just like the other, appear next to one another on a tool bar but
> perform a different function? The only clue to their difference being the
> tool tip...
Recently I was shown an intranet app UI that had one screen with 23 icons
and only 8 of them were unique, the rest were identified via tool tip plus a
few segmented color regions.
I asked what the problem with the UI was, amazingly this icon situation
wasn't mentioned at the top. When I did get to inquire about it, the reply
was close to yours: that's all the relevant icons they had :-)
Actually, the request was to raise the number of icons to a bit more than
40! Now, to top it off, the iconized concepts were incredibly abstract and
complex financial notions. And they all had to be done in a 35x35 pixel
First, I had to pick some of the most abstract 2-3 icons and redesigned them
just to show them that I could design in an incredibly confined space. Once
that was proven, I convinced them of the folly of adding these icons and
expecting any sane person to quickly identify them. Subsequently, I
redesigned the whole interface and got rid of all the icons. The
functionality was distributed throughout several screens where they were
much more appropriate and digestible.
Just to generalize, most of these button-heavy UIs are either done at
Redmond :-) or by programmers without much skill or interest in icon design.
Curiously, if you study one of the most dense UI categories -- 3D apps --
where the user is continuously exposed to a bewildering array of choices,
designers often opt for text based buttons, instead of purely graphical
icons. Hopefully, your developer might be impressed by that fact :-)
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: Sun Nov 23 2003 - 22:54:58 EST