Good UX Means Good Business
In a world where technology is rapidly advancing and user expectations are rising, it’s no longer enough to have an average user experience; to delight your users and surpass your competition you must strive for the exceptional.
As I was getting ready for work the other day, my 3-year-old son decided he wanted to help me iron my shirt. First he wanted to touch the iron, but clearly that was not an option, so instead he settled on pushing the spray button and soaking my entire shirt in the process. Well that was exciting enough for him, until he noticed another big button on the iron. That’s when he asked, “What happens when you push the broccoli button?”
No, I do not have a Veg-O-Matic 2000 that shoots out fresh steamed broccoli with the push of a button. It’s simply that from my son’s perspective, the symbol for steam looks a lot like broccoli. Now don’t be fooled, the kid never actually eats broccoli. Actually I’m surprised that he didn’t think it was cotton candy. But regardless, it demonstrates that iconography really is up to the interpretation of the user.
So how do you ensure that the icons you create will be clearly understood by your intended audience? It’s not always an easy process, especially when you’re dealing with abstract concepts, but the key is to closely define the relationship between the signifiers and the concepts they represent. There are two primary types of signifiers, iconic and symbolic. Iconic signifiers are visually representative of an object or a function. For example, a clock represents time or a calculator represents a mathematical function. Symbolic signifiers on the other hand, represent a concept in a more abstract way, such as downward arrow representing a download function.
Typically iconic signifiers perform better on speed of recognition and overall comprehension as users tend to interpret an unknown icon as having the functionality they think it resembles. However for that to be successful, the visual identifiers must be strong enough that the icon is not confused with another object, such as broccoli. In order to design effective iconography, you must understand your audience. Age, gender, culture and language are all key factors that influence comprehension.
For some concepts you may need to utilize a combination of iconic and symbolic signifiers. A good example of this is the “revisions” icon in WordPress. It consists of a clock, an iconic signifier which represents time and a backwards arrow, a symbolic signifier which represents stepping back in a process. This combination does a good job of communicating an abstract concept and providing clues about the underlying function of the icon.
When creating icons, it’s also important to think about the overall design system. Each icon should be clearly distinguishable from the others, while still working together as a whole. Keep in mind simplicity and recognition and always make sure you validate the concepts with your target audience. They are the ones that will tell you if the icon is successful or not.