June 28th, 2009
Joe wrote us:
I was just in a pattern review meeting, and the age-old discussion of whether to use icons and labels vs. just icons or just labels came up. Years ago, I recall Jared Spool and UIE posting an article in which their tests showed that icons and labels together were generally better. I can’t seem to find it…. could you folks point me to it?
P.S. FWIW, I prefer a design *guideline* that would state to use icons + labels unless there is a obviously standard icon, such as email or pdf icons. Of course, even those might not be clear to some user groups. The design guideline runs contrary against visual minimalism. As with all things, you make your choices and do your best to test it.
The article is from the old 1990’s Eye for Design days. It’s something that never made it to the web, probably because nobody has asked us about it in 15 years.
The facts about icons:
- Text + image works better than just image or just text. However, just text works better than just image.
- While icon images are learned, icon positions are learned faster. People remember a function by where it lives in 2D space more than by what the art is. (If you change the art, but keep the same location, users aren’t too impeded. If you move the location, but keep the art, users become frustrated.)
- The speed at which the average user can deduce an icon’s function from the image is directly proportional to the speed at which the design team can agree on what the ideal image for that function should be. (In other words, things that are obvious—question mark for help—are obvious to both the designers and the users. Things that aren’t obvious—what is the icon for “advanced privacy options”?—won’t be obvious to either group in anything less than geologic time periods.)