Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A word is worth a thousand icons. (Jeff Atwood)

My variation on this is that “a word is worth a thousand pictures.” In context, I think it’s more clever. The other, though, gets a little more directly to the point.

And what would that point be? Well, it actually reminds me – the former writer and linguist, that is – of acronyms. We all know what acronyms are. We may not, however, be able to state exactly where they come from, what purpose they serve, and how and when they can be abused.

An acronym is really just a way to speak more efficiently. If, for example, you are in the national security industry, you’ll probably be talking a lot about the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency, and maybe even the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti. How much more efficient to just say the CIA, the NSA, and the KGB.

Now, the problem arises when someone doesn’t know what those acronyms stand for. You, for example, probably know what an IA is, or SUS, or the K-J method, or MVP (and I don’t mean “most valuable player” here). Does your spouse though? Well, then how about your mom? Now, how about BABIP, VORP, DIPS, and WAR? Unless you’re a baseball nut like I am, those probably didn’t mean a darn thing.

And that’s the thing about icons. They act a lot like acronyms in that they allow you to communicate a lot of information in a very small space … unless they don’t, and then they don't really communicate anything, and fail miserably.

Now, some icons are pretty obvious. A printer for a print icon, for example, is something that pretty much everyone’s going to get. And there are also icons that, though they are not intuitively obvious, people have definitely learned over time. The perfect example is the floppy disk for saving. I mean, honestly, when’s the last time you used one of those? On the other hand, have you ever had any issues clicking on that to save something?

The problem arises when the icon is neither obvious nor learned. And that’s why I tell my project teams to add in a label, when they can. Of course, there are times when there isn’t room enough, especially on smartphones. You’d be surprised, though, how rarely that is actually the case, and how often you can indeed fit those words in.

A special issue arises when icons – and acronyms – are used not for efficiency’s sake, but for something much more nefarious. To return to acronyms for a second, those are famously misused to signal membership in a special club and to exclude others. How many times have you been in a business meeting, or talking with techies, and wondered what the heck they’re talking about? A similar thing happens with icons as well.

In particular, I’m sometimes struck by how readily graphic designers will resort to them. I’m also often struck by how coming up with icons seems to function more as an exercise in aesthetics than as an effort to really communicate with users. The icons that result are invariably “cool,” and “slick,” and “on brand” – and admired by other graphic designers. Often, though, the user may have no clue what they’re for.

Jeff is a developer and one of the founders of Stack Overflow.
It’s good to see that even developers get it too.

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