Icons, Usability and Computers

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Tom Bridge

Tom Bridge
Jan. 24, 2006 08:44 PM

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URL: 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.

Tom Bridge is a writer and technologist in Northern Virginia.