The other day I was working on a web application with a co-worker who was doing all the UI work. When I grabbed the latest set of changes, I came across this icon:
There were a bunch of other similar looking icons. Luckily there was mouse-over text explaining what they were. If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t have had any idea how to navigate the site.
I know this might go against the grain, but I am going to say it: Using icons isn’t always a good idea.
First of all, the purpose of an icon is to give a user something that is quickly recognizable without having to read text. It acts as a symbol for an action or object. The image holds value, as it represents something.
I hate to pick on an example, but look at the iPhone. The home screen is a series of icons. Some of the icons are quite obvious, even to someone who has never used an iPhone before, such as the calendar, phone, and mail icons. Thankfully the iPhone has small text descriptions of the item just below the icon. Other icons – in particular ones for certain apps, have little to no meaning for someone who has never used them before. Take for example, this one:
The first time I had no idea why there was an icon of an elephant on a co-workers computer (I wasn’t even entirely sure it was an Elephant at first). He then told me it was EverNote, and it seemed to make sense. Elephants never forget -> write down notes so you don’t forget stuff. Still though, if you’ve never seen it before, you would have no idea what it is.
Here’s another example – this being probably the worst of the bunch:
If you have seen Toad (a database tool) before, you’ll recognize it – not because of it’s icon, but because of the sheer amount of icons in the application.
Don’t get me wrong – icons can be very useful and helpful, especially for users who might not share the same language as the developer, but over-using icons in my mind is a poor practice.
Here is my general rule of thumb:
- If it is a common function, such as search, save, print or play, it is ok to use an icon.
- If the feature can easily and clearly be described by an icon, it is ok to use one. (E.g.: Google Chrome’s wrench icon to access a tools menu).
- If the icon represents a core piece of functionality and will be seen by users over and over again, it is ok to use an icon as users will quickly associate that icon with that functionality
If it doesn’t meet these criteria, there probably isn’t much point in giving it an icon – more so if the item only ever appears on a menu item.