October 18, 2010
The strangeness of everyday icon design
I read a blog post recently (sadly, I'm unable to locate it) about the strangeness of icons that we commonly see on digital interfaces. Surprisingly, these icons are also interesting examples of exceptions to some key icon usability rules.
Think of the 'save' icon: a FLOPPY disk! The floppy disk was popular for what, 2 years, but in that short period of time, it cemented itself as the icon for 'saving' for, apparently, the rest of eternity.
How these icons break accepted icon usability rules
The accepted best practice for icon usage, in most cases, is to not use icons alone, but have them accompany text links. The benefits of icons are to bring emphasis to a link, make an interface more friendly and interesting, and to possibly provide additional meaning to a link. In theory, they are decorative elements to be adjoined to link text, and are too abstract to be understandable by users. Here's a good article from Smashing Magazine about icon usage.
And because of these strong associations, they can appear alone, without accompanying text, and be perfectly clear. A floppy disk isn't seen as a picture of a floppy disk, it's seen as an abstract symbol that represents the action of 'Saving'. A picture of a printer means 'Print'. No text needed.
Conventions can be more advantageous than usability "rules"
This demonstates the power of conventions and user expectation.These examples conflict with the best practices of good icon usage, but are perfectly usable regardless. The general best practice is superceded by the convention.
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