many kinds of icons... instant visual recognition is the key
Posted Oct 14, 2005 7:51 UTC (Fri) by zblaxell
In reply to: many kinds of icons... instant visual recognition is the key
Parent article: A pair of desktop initiatives
"I don't know whether it's years of using an old text based IDE but popup a menu and I will find the words "Firefox" far quicker than some non-descript orange circle type logo."
Someone once asked me what the Firefox icon looked like. I said "It looks just like the one beside the text 'Mozilla Firefox' in the menu named 'Internet.'" Interestingly enough, on my machine at this moment, it's a blue-green circle type logo (I think it's supposed to be a stylized picture of the Earth), and has no trace of any color similar to orange. I think that's wrong...judging from mozilla.org I'd say it's supposed to be blue in the center and orange around the outside. So there is definitely room for improvement in Linux desktop software--even if I don't in principle agree that icons are a good idea, I do think that whenever an icon must be used, it must also be used *consistently*.
Everything worth talking about needs to have names, or people can't talk about them. Consider the many epithets for the anonymous "command" key on Mac keyboards, or the short and elegant synonyms for punctuation characters known to all experienced Unix people (or at least people who have read the appropriate sections of the Jargon file). If no names already exist, names will arise spontaneously whenever people need to talk about something, because most people can't pronounce images.
If something has a name, it would be nice to label it with that name, so that everyone knows what you're talking about. And once the object in question is labelled with a name, there's no further need for the icon, so it can just be dropped. Unfortunately, for some reason, people keep making the text *larger* than the icons, so I end up keeping the icons and turning off the text labels because wasting screen space is the worst of all.
Icons are death when you're trying to do any kind of remote technical support, especially with non-native-English speakers. If I'm speaking to someone 5000 miles away, I'd much rather say "Click Applications...Internet...Mozilla Firefox" than say "Click the logo that looks like a foot...it might be at the bottom or top of the screen...then look for the button that looks like a shiny plastic globe...then pick the globe icon which is slightly deeper blue without the shiny highlights but does not have the gears or ship's-steering-wheel on the left and bottom sides, and whatever you do, do *not* click on the globe with the human hand closing around it or the smaller globe with the colored ribbon circling...no, I'm not making this up! Why do you need me to wait while you write this down? No, I mean why are you writing this down at all when it's all in the computer? What do you mean the computer's in the other room?" The conversation usually goes on longer, but some of the words that come next *are* best represented with icons, at least on "professional" web sites.
Even with a remote connection, a data stream full of icons is just slow for no good reason.
Icons as a user interface feature just don't scale. How many household consumer devices have more than a dozen icons? How many have less than half that number? Most use only a few: one for "power", a pair of icons that means more or less of something (e.g. faster/slower, locked/unlocked), one for "this part might hurt you," one for "opening the case voids the warranty and may cause personal injury and property damage," and occasionally one for "we really mean it, put the screwdriver away before you kill yourself and burn down your house."
Anything that doesn't fit neatly into one of those categories gets a text label ("card reader" or "channel" or "remote speaker" or "Video 3") or no label at all. I have one or two devices where icons are used that don't fit these categories, but the icons are so meaningless that it's necessary to experiment with all of the buttons to see what they actually do, as if they had no labels or icons at all.
My car--by far the non-PC consumer device with the most complex interface--has a dozen icons on the driver's side of the dashboard (and, ironically, an LCD text display), and another dozen sprinked throughout the passenger space. There is a cluster of icons under the hood which means approximately "you have opened the hood, you ingenious fool you [icon], now go read the manual [icon] before you burn [icon], blind [icon], cut [icon], dissolve [icon], or electrocute [icon] yourself, try to avoid hitting your head with the hood [icon] as you close it, and make sure you close it properly [icon]." Road signs add another hundred or two icons. Most of these are variations on a theme, e.g. "curve left" is the mirror image of "curve right" and "air conditioning" is different in color but exactly the same shape as "maximum air conditioning," so the number of visually distinct icons is only a few dozen.
My laptop currently has 1114 entries in /usr/lib/menu. That's almost 100 vistually distinctive, recognizable icons on my desktop for each distinct icon a driver will see while driving a car. If they all had consistent, visually distinctive, and mnemonic icons, users would still require a lot of help just to find anything in that pictographic soup. Help like...text labels! Yes! Why didn't we think of this before, just put names on everything! ;-)
"BTW, I'm one of those people who, if a film jumps the camera to a new scene every two seconds, can no longer follow it. This makes many recent "action films" a complete waste of time. Why can't they keep the camera still, dammit!"
Because most modern action films would just look like a bunch of people trying really hard to avoid getting hurt if they didn't confuse the viewer with lots of editing. Hopefully there is continuity to be found in the soundtrack, otherwise I just wait it out and hope the film isn't directed by Jean-Christophe Comar.
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