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6-3. Icons

Icons, those familiar little pictures used to identify buttons and other objects, are a shibboleth of modern interface design. Apple Computer, which is well known for its leadership in this field, advised us that “icons can contribute greatly to the clarity and attractiveness of an application. The use of icons also makes it much easier to translate programs into other languages. Wherever an explanation or label is needed, consider using an icon instead of text” (Apple Computer 1985, p. I-32). Later versions of the manual were not so dogmatic about using icons, but the damage had already been done.

Icons contribute to visual attractiveness of an interface and, under the appropriate circumstances, can contribute to clarity; however, the failings of icons have become clearer with time. For example, both the Mac and Windows 95 operating systems now provide aids to explain icons: When you point at the icon, a small text box appears that tells you what the icon stands for. The obvious reaction, which I have observed repeatedly when users first see this facility, is Why not just use the words in the first place? Why not indeed? Instead of icons explaining, we have found that icons often require explanation. If you wanted to obscure or to encode an idea to keep it from prying eyes, substituting icons for the words might not be a bad start. The problem with icons can be considered an issue of diminished visibility: The interface presents an icon, but the meaning of the icon is not visible, or it may give the wrong message to someone for whom the graphic is unfamiliar or has a different interpretation. For example, an icon that shows the palm of an upraised hand indicates “halt” in the United States but signifies “here's excrement in your face” in Greece (Horton 1994, p. 245).


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