Icons open to interpretation

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

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:

Down Arrow Underscore = Download SDK
Brackets = Sample Code
Paintbrush (?) = App Studio
Up Arrow Overscore = Submit App
Bar Graph = Get App
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.

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