Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Don’t Wash Tennis Balls

Back when iOS 7 was released, I criticised the use of text strings as buttons:

Both [iOS and OS X are] used by people all over the world, and will set their device to one of the dozens of interface languages available. To accomodate the peculiarities of each language, interface elements containing text need to be flexible, and this flexibility gets compounded with additional text-based elements.

You’d therefore imagine that distinct symbols with clear meanings would be a smart way to bridge this gap. If they’re clear shapes, their function can be made obvious, and they likely need no localization.

Thomas Byttebier raises a good point:

[An] icon can often replace a long descriptive group of words. As screens get smaller, this is much welcomed. But herein lies the design trap, because most icons are unclear. They make people think. What good has a beautiful interface if it’s unclear? Hence it’s simple: only use an icon if its message is a 100% clear to everyone. Never give in.

I entirely agree with him, less his assertion that “the best icon is a text label”. It’s extraordinarily challenging to design an icon that will be read as an action — like “compose” or “refresh” — for an audience of people who range from the very tech-savvy to the novice, in hundreds or thousands of unique cultures. Different audiences will interpret icons in myriad ways, many of which the designer may not expect.

But it’s almost possible. The pictograms that are used in pretty much every airport worldwide are proof of this, but even they often accompanied by a text label in a mix of languages, so there can be no ambiguity. The consequences of an airport with ambiguous signage are significant: missed flights, frustration for already-stressed travellers, and so forth. The consequences of an ambiguous icon on a social network might be less significant, in the grand scheme of things, but ease of use should not come at the expense of trying to show off or be different.

Fight for the users.