Icons are effective medium to define meaning in a small space as compared to text. This becomes all the more important in an era where screen sizes have shrunk and responsive design standards have made it mandatory to redefine design as per the screen size. Icons raise the intuitive element of web design – an important design standard.
Icons can be both simple and complex. Although simple icons reduce the need of learnability, complex icons are designed for niche areas. Simple icons are meant for users who are beginners and should understand the brand meaning with the least effort at a quicker pace. Complex icons might require a steeper learning curve but are useful to explain complex ideas in a smaller space. Organizations even train their employees to understand complex icons with inherent complex meanings. Icons gain importance when language barriers exist. Icons serve as a means to rise above this barrier through visual representation of text. In cases where legibility is an issue, icons work well to pass on the inherent message of the brand/product and services to people who are not literate enough.
Purpose of Icon for User Interface
For small screens, icons can be enhanced by touch and serve as good targets. The toolbars and navigational menu items have more space to be displayed because icons free up a lot of space that would otherwise be used by text. Memorability is enhanced by using icons because pictures register for a longer time in the brain as compared to text. Hence, icons stay fresher in your mind, making it easier for users to recognize them. Icons enhance the visual appeal of the design and consistency reinforces a product or service class.
Problems Associated With Icons
Regardless of icons being a powerful visual tool to enhance usability of the user interface, icons do have certain issues. Sometimes instead of enhancing usability, icons can cause ambiguity and text labels become necessary to communicate meaning. If there is vagueness in icon design, the presence of a text label becomes vital (rather than allowing users to play a guessing game).
Different culture and backgrounds interpret icons and images differently, which might sometimes affect the consistency element of the icon. For example a checkmark means correct in Britain, but incorrect in Sweden. For icons that are aimed towards a single language/culture, it is advisable to provide text for users over a diverse age range, having different technical abilities. A roll over text should be provided for older users or users who are low in technical competence. Applications with highly important actions should be provided with text labels for audiences of all sorts. Complex applications, which require effort in understanding and learning, should have text labels alongside the icon. It is possible that enhancing simplicity might otherwise increase design complexity (cognitive load) and reduce audience learnability.
An icon works well on mobile devices as there are fewer elements on a mobile screen and the icon stands out among other elements. The case reverses when the screen size is enhanced. In such cases the icon size should be larger and navigation should be visible and not hidden beneath the icon. This provides greater visibility to menu options and avoids usability issues of the design.The focus should be on enhancing memorability for the users. The icon should take just a few seconds to convey its message and meaning. The design should be catered around the specific functionality and characteristics, rather than just visual appeal and graphic image. Icons should be tested on memorability (to check intuitive nature and brand reinforcement) with users to gauge effectiveness.
Carefully designed aesthetic icons with text labels increases both appeal and reach for all types of audience. The focus of the design should be to transcend language and cultural barriers to stand out as a truly global icon.