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Do Icons Improve User Experience? It Depends.

Which would you find more maddening…

Shrinking your favorite wool-blend sweater because you couldn’t decrypt the hieroglyphics on the label?

Or attaching the legs of your new IKEA chair upside down – despite scrutinizing the illustrations – because you (apparently unwisely) chose to get a degree in writing instead of engineering?

Personally, I think it’s a toss-up. And I may or may not have experienced both.

The point is, in each example, simple graphical elements that were meant to make a task easier complicated it instead. Graphical images – icons, symbols, and illustrations – will either add to or detract from a design. It’s a principle we see not just in the physical world but in the digital world too.

An iconic problem

When it comes to digital design, few elements are more popular than icons. They’re everywhere, from site navigation to application toolbars to product descriptions. Many companies use them for purely aesthetic reasons or to reinforce corporate branding. But they may be missing the real value of the icon.

In digital design, an icon’s purpose is to represent an action or idea in an easy-to-digest way. It’s like a visual shortcut. Unlike laundry symbols or IKEA illustrations, however, icons in the digital world don’t have a physical counterpart. A scissor icon can represent the task of cutting text, and an envelope icon can represent the concept of email. The best icons will add to a design, be easily recognized and universally understood, and ultimately make life easier for the user.

The problem is that it’s hard to convey complex ideas or tasks with simple graphical images. As a result, confusing icons clutter the digital landscape – distracting and even frustrating the end user. Icons are often subjective and context-dependent, conveying different meanings to different users in different situations. Take the simple arrow icon, for example. It could have multiple meanings: undo, back, reply, share, or forward. How does the user know which meaning to apply?

But icons don’t have to be boring, confusing, or frustrating. The right ones can be aesthetically pleasing and improve user experience. It all comes down to good design.

Some practical solutions

Aaron Robertson, one of our senior designers, believes that iconography has two main purposes in the digital space. He offers design tips for both.

(1) Action or Navigation

“These icons should be simple, clear, and concise. In this case, it’s all about universal recognition. The goal is to help someone find their way or complete a task.” Aaron says. “A great example is the shopping cart icon on a commerce website. It’s basic, and everyone knows what it means.”

“Here’s where it also helps to add labels or alt text to your icons,” he adds.

(2) Concepts

“It’s different when you’re talking about ideas or product features. That’s where the icons can be more unique, creative, and expressive,” Aaron explains.

“These kinds of icons work well with explanations, infographics, and statistics. They should be interesting, engaging to readers, and summarize the concept well. An example might be an umbrella icon that represents the concept of insurance because it protects you from risk like an umbrella protects you from rain.”

To learn more about iconography and how graphic designers help organizations create great icons, check out AIGA’s universal transportation symbols.

To avoid shrinking your favorite sweater, see Tide’s explanation of the laundry symbols. And to assemble your IKEA furniture, just consult directly with the National Society of Professional Engineers.



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