Let’s Make an Ass of You and Me

I was in third grade when I was told not to assume. My third grade math teacher told us that assuming makes a butt out of you and me.

Now if this is such a common saying that I learned when I was seven why is it that professional designers don’t keep it in mind when creating apps or icons? Should the user be forced to assume what a button does or how to navigate an app?

I feel like such an old person using Snapchat

I think the easiest example of this is Snapchat. This is an app that has 13 million downloads on the Google Play Store, and 166 million daily users as of quarter one of 2017. Granted that number is slowing down with competing apps taking over the functions of Snapchat, but it is still heavily used if you look at anyone under 25. Being 24 myself I use Snapchat daily, mostly as a group chat app, but I feel I have learned something new about this app every single day. All of the functions seemed to be based on the idea of discovery and experimentation. I can’t count how many features I have found on accident or because I thought the app was frozen. Now not all of this is Snapchat’s fault they are obviously going for a very young user base that is used to just swiping around on a phone, but does that mean that they need to take out a user friendly UI?

A hard to learn UI isn’t the worst thing to happen to an app (obviously with the success of Snapchat) because most things can be undone or closed out of, but what really irks me is icon design that isn’t clear. Take Facebook’s icon row.

At a glance I know what three out of the five are without already being familiar with Facebook and their icons. With another second I can get the friend request icon, but a globe for notifications? Sure its original and sure Facebook can set new trends because they own the world, but there needs to be something that lets the user know what they are clicking on. They have this little notifier when you first log into Facebook that gives a quick summary of your recent notifications,

but when you are first getting used to Facebook you don’t often have many notifications. Surprisingly on the Android Facebook app they took that icon out all together and replaced it with a more traditional bell notification icon. So at least their mobile team is paying attention.

I could go on for a long time with examples of assuming icons or UI on different devices and platforms, but I really didn’t write this to complain about these things. I began this research because I truly wanted to know if having users assume functions of icons is a “normal” thing to do. If so many people are doing it and those people are in massively popular apps like Snapchat, and Facebook does that sway the industry?

From what I’ve seen and researched it absolutely does sway the industry, by introducing new icons into different functions. Apple was one of the first large companies to go from a shopping cart to a shopping bag to indicate the shopping list. They were also one of the first to go from the three bar hamburger menu to a two bar instance. Without an initial period of change everyone might still be using the same shopping cart icon or a button with the word “Send” on it instead of a fun little paper airplane, but these changes shouldn’t force the user to guess or assume what the button might do. If your user can’t tell where their shopping list is there is a very small chance of them buying from you, if they have no idea how to play your game they’ll chose one of the other thousands of options available.

Back to my original question then, should the user be forced to assume what a button does or how to navigate an app? No, but people already associate different things with one idea like shopping bags and shopping carts, or a map with a pin in it and a crosshair. These different relations can be leveraged by designers but shouldn’t be stretched to a unrecognizable point.

Comment or follow me on Twitter @actually_brian if you liked this, and let me know what you think.