Icons, Usability and Computers

by Tom Bridge

Related link: http://www.apple.com/macosx/overview/

A classmate of mine tonight made an excellent point about the symbology that is inherent in computing. Think about it from an outsider's perspective, from someone who's never used a computer seriously, only rarely, casually. The representations that we use to represent things are really quite silly.

In the olden days of the Mac, I remember a specific icon that drove me crazy: the paint bucket. It didn't look like a paint bucket to me at all, rather some bizarre odd shape that didn't made any sense at all. Icons that are clear to some folks are far from intuitive to others.

Think about it. If you click on Firefox or Internet Explorer, what are you clicking on? A stylized E? A fox on a planet? What do those mean, really? Look at the icon for Safari. It's a compass. But how does that represent the web to a new user? I'm not sure it does.

A picture is supposed to speak a thousand words, but are those words the same to all users? Some icons are well designed. Mail.app and Address Book in OS X are absolutely unmistakable in their function. But other icons, including some for my favorite applications have too many permutations.

NetNewsWire is one of my mainstay applications, but the icon could be just about anything. Is it a program for tracking satellites? For tracking satellite TV listings? No, it's a newsreader, and a kickass one at that.

FirstClass is a server/client mail reader, whose application is people sitting around a table. Is it a program for scheduling meetings? for conference room management? Well, kinda, but it's primary use is groupware and email.

Apple isn't entirely guilt free here, icons for QuickTime and Dashboard are far from immediately obvious, which makes for a question: is the language of computing something we have to train people into doing, or is it really as easy as we'd like to believe? The answer's in the icons, but like all pictures, the interpretation is key.

Are icons really as useful as you'd like?


2006-01-24 21:58:07
paradigm shift?
The way out would have to be a paradigm shift, where Apple defines the icon for "web browser" and puts it into the Dock. You could still install, say, Firefox, but it would automatically take the "web browser" icon and the name would probably be "web browser" or "WWW" or "World Wide Web". Similarly, the "mail" icon in the Dock would – should the user want to – launch "Thunderbird" or "Entourage" should the user prefer one of those applications to Mail.app.
In the current way, with competition comes the distinguishisification problem. ;) ... Web browsers as well as newsreader apps seem to think they need to show a "world" or something about "navigating". Well: I guess so do GPS applications and Google Earth etc. ...
2006-01-25 00:00:26
if the paradigm is language
If what we are looking for icons as "universal language" then we really should take the creation of these little pictures out of the hands of corporations and come up with some standards. This is already done with the icons used on cable connectors, on some special keys, etc. The on/off symbol, the firewire symbol, the raise and lower volume symbols are essentially universal. At the very least, the various software products should stick to variations on the same theme for their "class" of application.

Of course the current situation functions because there are some universal aspects to the way in which icons are used and treated. A user learns that they represent applications or documents or files, so they can learn how to find out more about the icon and later come to associate its representation with that particular function no matter how absurd and divorced from the real underlying idea they become.

As new products appear and take over functionality from other software perhaps over time we will see an evolution of the icons to the point where computer interface becomes a bit like looking at chinese characters.

2006-01-25 00:58:15
Usability problem - no.
This pseudo-"problem" does seems to have caused some distress and head-scratching to the GNOME team who've come up with an "answer" to it. But really I can't imagine how anyone could be naive enough to imagine that anyone could be more than very temporarily "confused" by the design of any icon. I'd agree that many are ugly, but that's another matter.
2006-01-25 01:04:33
iPhoto/iTunes "folders", huh?
You've reminded me of something that bothered me when iPhoto and iTunes added support for "folders". Why did Apple choose to use classic folder icons for them? And why are they even called folders?! No one stores their physical a/v media in manila file folders so both the name and icons in iPhoto/iTunes are inaccurately misrepresentative.

I suppose some intended universal familiarity and consistency was the reason. Yet that would seem to tempt people into thinking they actually *are* Finder folders (or linked to them). iPhoto/iTunes use different names/icons for other collections of content so why the stubbornness with "folders"?

Seems backwards dragging traditional file manager terminology and symbols into non-office apps (e.g. iPhoto and iTunes). Why are they called "folders" instead of names that more accurately describe collections of data in the context they're used? And why are we still using that drab manila file folder as the generic universal icon?

Generally, both the classic "folder" icon and name are overused and misused nowadays; a legacy symbol and terminology of an increasingly ill-fitted desktop metaphor for computing interfaces. And, gosh, now we have Smart Folders and Burn Folder in Finder. No one intuitively knows what "smart" and "burn" mean but they're something different than a "normal" folder and they get new icons to signal new meanings. Hmm.

Somehow that relates to the article but I've already written too much and won't attempt tying things together.

2006-01-25 04:31:36
The 3.5" disk image
My pesonal favorite and most useless icon, especially to today's emerging generation, is that of the 3.5' floppy for saving files.
2006-01-25 06:55:01
Quicktime icon?
Honestly, when was the last time you clicked on the Quicktime icon? or even saw it? I agree that icon design for a lot of applications needs to be improved, but some programs simply never get used directly. I use Quicktime by double-clicking on files (or more usually as a Safari plugin).

Another problem with associating an application's icon directly with the task it performs is the large number of programs that all do the same thing. Once we design an icon that accurately represents what a web browser does, which web browser gets to use it? How about video players and text editors of which there are dozens. And what kind of icon would work better for an RSS reader? I suppose one possbility would be a newspaper, but even that metaphor breaks down when you think about it. How do we graphically represent concepts that have no direct visual analog?

I think the criticism is a valid one, but I fail to see how the problem can really be solved. It's not just a matter of "computer vocabulary". There's also branding and just simply disambiguating one web browser (or whatever) from another. The mozilla folks are going the right direction with their icon design. There is no accurate graphic representation for what a web browser does (not really) so they're instead choosing to develop a strong visual brand identity to separate themselves from the other browsers. I think it's a good design strategy that will ultimately serve them well, probably better than a more utilitarian solution would.

2006-01-25 07:00:04
It's a global problem
Just look at how many icons are planets or include them. Firefox, Camino, NetNewsWire, MarsEdit, Ecto, blah blah blah. Representing the web iconically is difficult, as it has no meatspace antecedant. In the early days of the web CERN used a stylized green WWW; it would have been nice if that (or any consistent symbol) caught on, but we're left with the web being symbolized by the world.
2006-01-25 07:02:44
Quicktime icon?
I actually see the Quicktime Logo an awful lot, as I work in digital media, and I'm always struck by its complete use of branding, and not supporting the form and function...
2006-01-25 07:03:52
iPhoto/iTunes "folders", huh?
I was really enthused that they changed this in Aperture. If you look at the icon they use to represent a collection of photos, it's a print box, an old-school paper print box, instantly recognizeable to anyone who has been doing photography for a while. That was seriously cool to me.
2006-01-25 07:45:38
Now there's a googlewack !
"meatspace antecedant" - nothing found on Google (until this page is indexed)...
2006-01-25 07:58:30
Am I the only one who seems to understand this?
What is the best and worst thing about art? (think about this for a second...)

Give up? It's all up to the interpretation.

I think icons are becoming more and more like art everyday: with applications, they try to show you what they interpret as the underlying image for the project. So Safari's compass is kinda like a guide to navigating the web, as you would use a regular compass to navigate a map. iPhoto and iTunes? Great representation: they're probably the first things you think of when you think of images and music, respectively.

The only way to really understand what Apple meant with the Quicktime icon is to take a look at the animations of the logo, which makes it an awful interpretation for what it is. Explaining it as art doesn't always work.

2006-01-25 08:29:19
It's a global problem
I agree. Furthermore, using a spiderweb is probably not the best way to attract people to click on a link.
2006-01-25 08:41:22
Am I the only one who seems to understand this?
I appreciate the connection to art, but Macs are supposed to be more usable than any other computer, when in fact the icons aren't terribly usable at all, because the representations are, in fact, interpretable.
irenestern friedman
2006-01-25 08:48:30
Icons need only be pretty
You can always use the text which accompanies icons until you recognize what each icon represents.

I change virtually every icon programs come with to things I find esthetically appealing--generally stars, spheres, flowers, or celestial bodies such as the moon or planets. When a friend uses my computer I always need to identify the program they want!

My computer desktop and icons make me smile, and that's a good thing.

2006-01-25 09:10:06
The Problem
The problem isn't the icon designer, it is the fact that there is no universal icon to represent the functionaly of many applications.

Looking through my applications, I see a lot of icons which nicely represent their functionality. Text Edit, iTunes, iPhoto, iCal, Calculator and Chess just to name a few. These icons are intuitive because they can be. The functionality relates to something physical that new users can quickly understand.

But take a web browser, there is no physical way to represent that, so the icon designer has nothing to base it off of.

2006-01-25 10:35:10
No googlewack - word is spelled wrong
Um, perhaps you didn't notice, but the word is "antecedent" - not "antecedant." Go google "meatspace antecedent" and you'll find many results.

No googlewhack here, just poor spelling.

2006-01-25 13:07:46
iPhoto/iTunes "folders", huh?
I take it then that you also object to the stamp icon beig used for Mail? No-one's ever had to affix an adhesive square of paper to an e-mail, as far as I know :)
2006-01-25 14:59:05
Beyond just the icons ...
The one Mac OS user-interface quirk that really got me is that you'd drag the floppy disk or CD-ROM icon to the trash to eject the disk.
By this logic, you should be able to drag the internal hard disk's icon to the trash and have it come flying out of your computer. Too bad it doesn't!
2006-01-25 17:05:05
As they say: The only truly intuitive interface is the nipple. After that, it’s all learned.
2006-01-27 16:52:29
Companies still want brand imagery. Some suggest a standardized icon for web browsing for example, but consider the software vendor and their relationship with the consumer and how they're perceived and how their software is recognized. There would need to be some other means for connecting functionality and brand imagery without taking away the brand entirely.

I won't disagree that a standard icon for web browsers is nice, but I'd like to find a better answer that addresses new users and ISV branding.

While users still have choice over what is installed, ISVs should be able to stand up and be noticed.

2006-01-30 15:48:00
It's largely a non-problem, because the primary function that icons serve is recognition and differentiation, not naming. It's largely sufficient that they are easy to recognize and distinguished from other icons. We learn that a fox wrapped around a planet is the FireFox web browser icon, and that a compass is Safari, regardless of whether they are indivudally meaningful as a metaphors or not.

What does make sense is the thoughtful use of a design language, such as Apple's attempts in earlier OSs to keep application icons roughly diamond shaped and document icons largely rectangular.

Carol Anne
2006-01-31 15:26:46
While most people who design software don't understand semiotics, and the value of symbolism, and haven't a clue how to design a meaningful symbol, your global assumption exposes more ignorance than light.

How does "Firefox" (a word, and a symbol) relate to what the product actually DOES? For that matter, how does "Chevrolet" or "Corvette" communicate the purpose of the artifact named with the symbol(s)?

Symbol meaning are constructed by the people who use them. Over time, they link that funny "paint" symbol to the thing they want to do. Since symbols are inherently devoid of meaning until people make the connection by using them.

Icons are, in fact, rampant in your daily non-computer life (think of any brand, for instance). It's how they're used that allows them to acquire significance.

All that having been said, many concepts are hard to reduce to symbolism. How would you convey the sense of "Access to information you want and don't yet have a clue how to find" in an icon? A Question mark? That symbol is wa-a-ay overused. But the symbol "Google" has acquired widespread linkage to the concept, no matter how inherently irrelevant it may be.

Go lean some semiotics, then come back and talk about how to use icons better. A symbol for a paint can is more mnemonic that the spelled-out word "Paint."

--Carol Anne

patrick meagher
2006-05-03 21:17:15
perhaps similar to today's icon evolution,
characters in chinese and many asian languages are
in large part no longer total pictographs, but combinations
and inventions. may i introduce another word 'paleogismic' to describe
icons who have lost their visual reference to a task now accomplished otherwise? (paleogism the opposite of neologism). while 'neologism' doesnt have an adjective form either, i think it would be fitting for both evolution and devolution of icons outside of meatspace; like another neologism: "asslandic - (adj.) of or relating to a person who is a smart ass"
patrick meagher
2006-05-03 21:21:19
perhaps similar to today's icon evolution,
characters in chinese and many asian languages are
in large part no longer total pictographs, but combinations
and inventions. may i introduce another word 'paleogismic' to describe
icons who have lost their visual reference to a task now accomplished otherwise? (paleogism the opposite of neologism). while 'neologism' doesnt have an adjective form either, i think it would be fitting for both evolution and devolution of icons outside of meatspace; like, (and im not trying to be like that) another neologism adjective: "asslandic - (adj.) of or relating to a person who is a smart ass"
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