Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Usefulness of Icons

I'm still trying to get used to the new ABCNews.com design, but the deeper I delve the greater the unhappiness is with the user interface design. One thing that has always been a difficult task for UI designers is to create really great icons. What is very useful about icons is that they take up very little space, which is also what makes them so difficult to design. You have to make something very intuitive on a ridiculously small canvas, or in ABCNews.com’s case around 12x12 pixels.

I can see how this treatment could slip by a creative director. The icons are aesthetically pleasing and well crafted from a visual standpoint. So that leads me to ask the question, is this website run by someone who is more graphic designer or user experience designer?

There is a TV icon with rabbit ear antennae on top. I remember growing up with these things and constantly adjusting them to get better reception on our Black and White TV as a child of the seventies. There's also an old school camera icon with a disposable flashbulb at the top. When was the last time you put a flashbulb on your camera? Their lead video bloggess Amanda Congdon wasn’t even born until 1981. Did they test this icon with her?

Other icons which are not intuitive are a checkbox, multiple files, a talk-balloon and a file icon. After digging around to find out what these really meant, I can see the connection, but that is not how icons work. You shouldn’t have to explain them, they should be intuitive.

One way I like to test icons is to strip them of their context and tooltips and ask people what they think these stand for. Look at the Flash movie I created below and see what you think they are.

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