Iconography. Good or bad? As always, it depends
Icons are everywhere. Download one of thousands of free vector icon kits from the Internet™️ and start throwing pixels in the shape of hamburgers, kebabs and magnifying glasses over your artboards and you’ve got yourself a design. But have you stopped to think when to use an icon, and when not to use one? When to use which icon?
This piece shares some musing, and some research, from the SEEK UX team regarding iconography, which hopefully makes you more aware of the UX complexities behind these little 8-bit pieces of art.
Icons as static elements
Static icons are those used as decorative elements, to communicate a discrete piece of information or to help with way finding. Like everything, they can be both good and bad.
Icons are good
Well designed, and easily recognisable, icons can quickly communicate information a user may be scanning for — for example, scanning a page of search results for hotels that have WiFi, or the number of bedrooms in a property. We see this in symbolism for accessible car parks, signs for bathrooms and the universal symbol for poison.
Icons save space, and reduce cognitive load by removing the need to re-read the same piece of information against every listing, reducing friction.
Icons can improve the look of an interface, adding visual appeal which is known to enhance the (perceived) UX and usability of a product. This is known as the Aesthetic-Usability effect and you can read about it here (NN/G).
When icons are paired with text, it can improve accessibility by giving an alternative mechanism to relay information — text with a visual clue — which is good for individuals with cognitive issues, low vision who cannot see the icon properly etc.
Icons can also help with navigation for people who speak (or read) the language of the interface as a non-primary language (or not at all). I might not be able to read the text on the interface, but icons can give me an understanding of how to navigate around, or how to find what I’m looking for. This is also true in the real world and is why we have standardised icons for bathrooms, airports, elevators etc.