Icons and symbols have been a part of human communication since Homosapiens began drawing cave walls. Fast forward to the symbols on our computer desktops for “Trash” and “Hard Drive.” Now we discuss “Hamburger menu” icons and debate Flat Design versus Skeumorphism.

Regardless of your preference, when considering using icons for communicating, approach with caution. Humans are multi-faceted beings who do not necessarily interpret signs and symbols the same way.

Case in point, the following icon menu in a high-priority location on a regularly visited website for app developers

windowsDev_icons_restState

Icon Menu – Rest State

Without hovering over the icons, the only one I genuinely feel confident I can correctly interpret is the first symbol on the left, “Download”, and the magnifying glass, “Search.” The remaining 5, I’m uncertain. Let’s see:

windowsDev_State1

Down Arrow Underscore = Download SDK

windowsDev_State2

Brackets = Sample Code

windowsDev_State3

Paintbrush (?) = App Studio

windowsDev_State4

Up Arrow Overscore = Submit App

windowsDev_State5

Bar Graph = Get App

windowsDev_State6

Eye = Preview App

The  App Studio and Get App icons had me at a loss until I hovered over them.

Now, the caveat to this particular site is that if there are regular visitors, they will become familiar to the icon system. However, the overall message around usage of icons is valid – approach them with caution, not all human beings see and interpret icons and symbols the same way. For a system to be as useful and usable as possible, so must icons be quickly, easily and correctly interpretable. Or not used at all when text may suffice.