Why Icons are Important

Icons are everywhere; some are so powerful and universal that we instantly recognise that they represent a brand, product, or message, without the need for any words. On a smaller level, icons such as emojis can convey emotions and meaning from one person to another, and in some cases people solely use emojis in place of text to broadcast their message.

In the technology world, icons represent a large portion of how users navigate around software or websites; we all recognise the ubiquitous “print” icon in Microsoft Word, or the “reply” icon in any email client.

Research has shown that icons, when used correctly, can enhance usability, be easily remembered, and improve the design of the webpages or software being used. On the other hand, when used incorrectly, icons can cause confusion, and completely affect the navigability for the user. If an icon is unclear in its intention, then the user won’t understand what will happen when they click it!

Icons can also spark a debate in terms of their suitability and appropriateness within their wider context. The recent change in Facebook’s “people” icon, to bring the male and female icons into a more equal standing, (as opposed to the previous iteration of having the female icon in the background), is certainly a big deal, and shows that Facebook is making a conscious effort in portraying genders equally; all in the space of an icon.

It’s clear that icons are incredibly important, and also pretty easy to get wrong. So how can we use them in the best way to enhance the user experience of websites and software products, whilst maintaining a good level of comprehension?

The most vital thing to note is that icons should almost always be accompanied by a text label. Unless an icon is already universally understood, a label will be needed so that the user can easily identify what the icon does or means. Well-designed icons, in combination with text, will enhance usability and readability, and creates a meaningful link between the icons and ideas expressed in the content.

It’s also important that, when using icons, their location is kept consistent. Studies have shown that if icons keep changing position, even if the icon design remains the same, users are left confused. On the other hand, if the icon design changes, but stays in the same place, users don’t tend to notice.

As long as care and consideration is taken, icons can be a fantastic way of representing ideas into one succinct entity, as well as enhancing the design and brand of the webpage or product.

Kerensa Johnson writing for Claromentis.

Follow us on Twitter @Claromentis