By Arathi Sethumadhavan
Undoubtedly, icons have obvious advantages.
- They can be visually appealing and an effective way to communicate with users
- They can replace the need to translate text to several languages when your users come from all parts of the globe
- They can convey an idea in a matter of seconds compared to elaborate text
- They can show the strength of your brand
- They can be more aesthetic appealing
- They can create a more engaging experience for users
Though icons have several advantages, these have obvious disadvantages as well. First, there are very few icons that are comprehensible by people all over the world. Second, when misinterpreted, users can infer the information that is being relayed to them erroneously, impacting the user experience (e.g., a shopper misinterpreting the security of a shopping site) as well as have severe consequences in safety-critical domains (e. g., a patient misinterpreting an icon).
So, is the adage “a picture worth a thousand words” passé when it comes to user interface design? That is what some of the research done by Google would suggest.
Per this recent article, the Google Chrome security team have come to the conclusion that using icons alone is not an effective way to help users gauge the security of the websites they visit. They conducted user studies spanning over two years involving users from different parts of the world to explore how Internet users comprehend security warnings on websites. They concluded that web users across the globe struggle with interpreting what the padlock and purse icons in browsers represent. To help users assess the security of the websites they visit better, Google now plans to add the words “secure” or “insecure” to the left of Chrome’s address bar. Google’s conclusion is no different from what the FDA thinks on the topic of symbols as well. Whenever symbols are used, FDA recommends that symbols are accompanied by explanatory text or that stand-alone symbols are used which are part of a Standards Development Organization’s Standard.
So, what are some of the factors to keep in mind when developing icons?
- First, it is important to make sure that that icons are easy to find. Reaction time studies can help gauge how long users take to locate an icon.
- Second it is important that users know what icons represent. Phrase generation technique can be used during the initial conceptualization phase of the product development to assess icon comprehension, by having users generate phrases that come to mind when they see an icon in 45-60 seconds. The first phrase generated from the series of phrases would indicate the concept that was immediately evoked when a user saw an icon.
- Third, users’ preference for icons (e.g., style, shape) can also provide valuable insights in developing a user interface that is inviting and aesthetically appealing. User preference can be collected using Likert-like scales.
- Finally, usability testing with low and high fidelity prototypes can help assess users’ ability to find and interpret icons.
What do you think these featured icons mean?