Someday, I will find the source of this quote and be able to cite it and get it right. But in the meantime, there’s a quote to the effect of
GUIs are not powerful because they can contain graphics; they are powerful because they can contain text.
—source unknown. Nearly all user interface actions are highly abstract (after all, they amount to twiddling the internal state of a device with a screen and maybe speakers and no other way of communicating what’s going on within it); there happen to be a handful of actions we’ve trained users to recognize an effectively arbitrary icon for (the 3.5" floppy disk as “save” being a stellar example, both of an icon that is well-recognized and one that is completely arbitrary), but for almost all actions outside these select few, no possible icon will express what they do without explanation. So put text labels on your interface elements! A single well-chosen word is worth a thousand unclear pictures when it comes to conveying abstract information.
A few years ago Github replaced a bunch of text labels with pictures, and have thankfully backtracked to using their words. There’s a good argument that icons serve international audiences more effectively, at the new-user end. I’m thankful to see more words and fewer gears, clouds, up-arrows, eyeballs, pencils, and hamburgers these days.
I remember this Github interface change and recall reading comments like “there is no consistency. Why is gear a two-D toothed wheel while the logout is a three-D open door”, etc. I like to think that we were/are on our own modern version of the Oracle bone script made much worse by multiple ivory towers pervading their own versions. I think there are two reasons for this: 1) disregarding what is already accepted in moderation and coming up with something that they think is better; 2) concluding that they are really different and need a new set of icons for such and such. And do the current somewhat standardized forms of icons even make sense? Floppy icon for save (fun anecdote: there was a highly voted Q on stackoverflow asking why Windows drive letters start from C:), a 90s phone (with wire in some cases) for call, etc.
Comparatively, the tech side is much better off when it comes to standardization. We have competitors coming together in bunches of 3s or 4s and agreeing on data protocol for example. Somehow I think this will never happen with design.
I’m amazed how many of these examples I could relate to. Apple Mail for me is the worst offender. I never click the real “Compose” button first. As I start looking from the left, I always first click the “Fetch new mail” button and only then the button I was looking for. It’s horrible and I really dislike it. Luckily I don’t work on the Mac a lot. But I would expect better from Apple, to be honest.
If you are doing UX and you are not testing with users you are not doing UX. The best icon is the one your users respond to, test both, test a mix, users are hard to predict so watch their every move, your users might be illiterate. I’ll concede he touches on this in the article, and thinking is great, but I’d love to see some data backing up his claims. Maybe the icon examples he picked are just bad icons, what about people with vision impairment, dyslexia and other handicaps is text better for them? Not trying to tear down his work it’s very interesting, but the language is a bit matter of fact, when in reality it’s a matter of maybe at least with the evidence he’s provided. For example sure the washing icons are hard to read for me, but maybe they’re not actually there FOR me, what if they’re for professionals who wash thousands of clothes a day who need to know at a glance what to do for each garment.
Use icons for obvious, important actions. There’s no law saying you can’t mix the two as needed.
Yeah, that’s what article says. Have you read it?
I’ve read the article twice just to make sure, and I didn’t get that feeling at all. In fact often his argument is that the obvious important actions represented by an icon adds room for ambiguity, which while sometimes is true, it sometimes ISN’T true.
And when in doubt, always remember this: the best icon is a text label.
Sure the previous few words are be very careful and test, but that’s like a dentist saying brush your teeth, here’s some candy.
Oops, I thought it wasn’t. Shouldn’t be commenting when tired. Consider it the brief tl;dr though.