Icons vs. Symbols

7 Mar 2009 - 3:13am
5 years ago
5 replies
1289 reads
Den Serras
2009

I need a little help here. I'm creating a site with a photo search
like Getty or Corbis. The client wants a series of buttons for each
photo denoting functionality. Here's the list:
-add to favorites
-Quick Quote (emails artist)
-Add to Quote (like add to cart)
-Compare photos (click to add to comparison list)

This feature is all about the photos, and my experimentation suggests
that picture icons fight with the images and defocus the page. I want
a series of four symbols, all characters in equal sized, slightly
spread out gray boxes:

! Q $ C

These are all memorable and will have rollover descriptors. They want
to replace these with your typical line-art icons. This creates three
problems. If they are too similar, they will become useless; if
they're too different then they fight with each other. Second,
picking coherent icons to represent these four ideas at about 12x12
will be tough. The biggest problem is that I believe they will fight
with the images for attention because of their inherent dissimilarity
and complexity.

To make matters worse, they want to add more icons!
-Print (brings up the image detail page & activates print dialogue)
-Email (brings up the image detail page & activates "email to
friend" feature)

I need proof that A) symbols are as effective as icons in limited
areas like this, and B) that icons can actually distract from the
content.

I'm dealing with serious inertia problems. If I let the picture
icons go into production then they'll never change them, and they
don't have the budget or inclination to do real A-B testing. Can
anyone suggest anything?

PS, I'm willing to be proven wrong.

Den

Comments

7 Mar 2009 - 11:01am
Mike Myles
2009

If you're so averse to icons then just use text. The use of single
characters like !, Q, $, and C seems risky. "!" generally denotes a
warning or error - "Q" to me reads as question or query - "$" is
money (USD that is) - "C"... speed of light. :)

My point is, single characters tend to already be imbued with
meaning, and it could change for different regions, cultures, and
personal background.

As for your icon aversion, I'm not sure it's well placed. People
are really skilled at scanning images. If users are having problem
confusing icons with photos on your site there may be something else
going on:

- The overall layout may be and issue; i.e. no clear distinction
between the search results area and the command controls.

- The icons may be bad. 12x12 px is quite small. If you doubled that
you could have much more descriptive images. Even with all the
buttons you've mentioned going with larger icons would only require
roughly a 24x150 px area. That's really not that much space,
especially given the ever increasing screen resolutions.

- Maybe the photos in the search results area are the problem: they
are too small, the resolution is bad...

Icons are all around us, not just in software but in the real world
as well. They can certainly be used effectively. If they are not
working in your UI I would not immediately jump to the conclusion
that the root of the problem is that icons are being used. There are
countless examples of complex, icon laden UIs out there that work
well for people. I'm very suspicious of a finding that four icons
are crippling the usability of a site. It just sounds like there is
probably something more going on.

I'd recommend stepping back and looking at the bigger picture. Take
the focus off the icon vs symbol debate for a bit and see if the
usability problem you are seeing with users might have a different
cause.

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Posted from the new ixda.org
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7 Mar 2009 - 1:08pm
Den Serras
2009

I don't have a problem with icons in general - not at all! My issue
is in this particular application. I'm not worried about users
getting confused between photos and icons. I'm worried about the
overall layout. I can imagine the eyetracking research for this (I
wish I could get the client to do the real thing) - the user's focus
will be jumping from picture to picture, as it should, but also to the
icons, which it shouldn't.

Take a look at the gettyimages.com site, and you'll see what I mean.
A set of consistent, small, light symbols are far less of a visual
disruptor than those icons. In my experience, hunting through
hundreds of photos is tiring enough. My fear is that adding the
clutter will make the experience even that much more draining. I see
it as comparable to why museums prefer to keep the descriptions of
artwork away from the piece so that your focus is where it should be
- on the art.

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Posted from the new ixda.org
http://www.ixda.org/discuss?post=39598

7 Mar 2009 - 7:05pm
Gilles DEMARTY
2005

Hello Den,
Why don't you make the graphics/icons appear when the picture is hovered ?
That way the icons will not be so much of an annoyance while the user scans
the photos, as at most one serie of those icons/graphics will appear. And
when the user will decide to "do something" with the picture they are
interested in, they will target that picture and select the action
accordingly.

Well, just my $.02.

On Sat, Mar 7, 2009 at 7:08 PM, Den Serras <dennitzio at yahoo.com> wrote:

> I don't have a problem with icons in general - not at all! My issue
> is in this particular application. I'm not worried about users
> getting confused between photos and icons. I'm worried about the
> overall layout. I can imagine the eyetracking research for this (I
> wish I could get the client to do the real thing) - the user's focus
> will be jumping from picture to picture, as it should, but also to the
> icons, which it shouldn't.
>
> Take a look at the gettyimages.com site, and you'll see what I mean.
> A set of consistent, small, light symbols are far less of a visual
> disruptor than those icons. In my experience, hunting through
> hundreds of photos is tiring enough. My fear is that adding the
> clutter will make the experience even that much more draining. I see
> it as comparable to why museums prefer to keep the descriptions of
> artwork away from the piece so that your focus is where it should be
> - on the art.
>
>
> . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
> Posted from the new ixda.org
> http://www.ixda.org/discuss?post=39598
>
>
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8 Mar 2009 - 11:02pm
Den Serras
2009

As I feared, the client went with icons, but they messed up the
overall design so much that the icons are now the LEAST of the
problems with the layout. At least I was able to choose icons that
were relatively similar in shape and reduced the clutter somewhat.
But what can you do when the folks who pay the bills won't listen to
even the most well-reasoned argument? They think "Getty does it like
this, and they have tons of money, so they must be right". Ugh.
There's a whole topic to itself.

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Posted from the new ixda.org
http://www.ixda.org/discuss?post=39598

9 Mar 2009 - 3:13pm
Piero Ardizone
2009

Den,
Mike makes some good points...using characters could backfire.

I happen to think Getty's approach is not so bad, although I tend to prefer icons that are framed so that they maintain absolute visual consistency.

The important thing I think is that they opt for monotone icons and not colored icons, which I think are more distracting(for example the old colored icons in the system tray on PC's, which MS recently - and intelligently - changed to monotone icons in WIN 7).

As far as keeping the icons invisible until mouse-over... I'd think this might create a problem with users not being aware of the functionality associated with those icons until they happen to mouse-over a photo. Then you also lose the ability to display tooltips when you mouse-over the icons themselves, which is something else I think is important.... just my .02. good luck. =)

PS - oh, and what to do when the client insists on the wrong approach? This is one of the unfortunate circumstances that often comes with our field of expertise. At the end of the day, you nicely but assertively document and promote what you believe to be the best solution. If they don't take advantage of your expertise(what they are paying you for) then that is their prerogative...after all they are the boss. But it's your responsibility to make your position clear before surrendering. ;)

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