The ineffectiveness of lonely icons

The ineffectiveness of lonely icons 1

Broken concepts

There’s a classic example of inappropriate assumption involving iconography that I see time after time, and which will be evergreen. Language selectors.

In countries that have single languages, the assumption by naive designers is that flag == spoken language.

It’s wrong.

  • There are many countries which have more than one official language.
  • There are many countries that have the same official language.
  • There are countries that care about your using the wrong flag (The US flag does not represent “English”… not by a long shot).
  • In any country there are untold numbers of residents and visitors that speak languages other than the official ones of the country.
  • In any country there are untold numbers of residents and visitors that speak none of the official languages of the country.

Countries are geo-political entities represented by a flag. Language bears no direct relation to country. As a result, pictures of flags are useless for language selection in any place that would actually benefit from a language selector.

If you want to make a language selector, use words that list the available languages in the language of that language. So “Cymraeg” and not “Welsh”. For example.

Incorrect applicability

Here’s another often incorrect assumption: My users recognise the icons I want to use.

I bet that’s what Google’s designers thought. They. Were. Wrong. The problem with designing anything is assumed context. Gmail is an application used by pretty much every type of person it’s possible to imagine. The reliability of shared experience is likely to be close to nil. It has to cater to people who are only just getting online and who have no experience at all with “convention”.

It was incorrect of Gmail’s designers to believe that lone icons were an appropriate and applicable choice for the target audience.

Incorrect expectations of discoverability

A general audience is the most common audience any of us are likely to be catering for. You can’t assume it’ll behave in a particular way.

When I claim that using lone icons is always going to alienate whole categories of people, like my mother’s generation, I always hear people bite back. “Well people will just have to use that app and then it’ll become obvious”.

Older people are not like children. Are not naturally inclined to touch things and see what happens. Are expecting they can break things through ignorance. Are not going to just try stuff. They haven’t grown up with computers. They might not trust the computer (I hear Amazon knows what you say, I hear Facebook spies on you). They are not, therefor, going to throw caution to the wind and click about.

Missing interaction indicators

Not only did my mum not recognise the iconography Google were using, she didn’t recognise these elements were interactive. Because… they’re symbols devoid of labels that might have got her to try interacting, and they’re also symbols without contextual indicators of interactivity, such as:

  • Animating on hover or on initial load
  • Appearing like a normal form button

This post was originally posted here

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