Icon Failures

Skype call icons – 📹 🎙 + 🕽

Ever since the idea of graphical user interface came out of Xerox labs, icons have been a tool of choice of user interface designers. The problem is that introducing a new icon amounts to defining a new graphical word.

Using analogies with the real world supposedly helps understanding, but this only works if the user has seen that object and recognises its stylised representation. The phone icon (☎) is widely recognised, but pretty abstract for generations Y and following, which never saw a phone with that shape outside of a museum.

Many windows user interfaces used the a 3½” floppy disk (🖫) as a metaphor for saving, which is pretty bad, because they are basically a plastic rectangle with a metallic bit and maybe some label with nothing useful written on it. It has also died out quicker than the old style phone receiver, so it is abstract for most people.

Designers always want to simplify these icons, as it makes them more elegant, and more readable, it also makes them more abstract. Trying to help my mother remotely with the Skype user interface, I got the following reading for the control icons:

  1. Wrapped sweet
  2. Flower vase
  3. Plus sign
  4. Phone

A recognition rate of 50% is pretty bad. The problem here is that the first two icons are both very abstract, and representations of objects my mother did not interact with a lot: a video camera and a professional microphone.

Interestingly, all these symbol became actual characters with the emergence of emoji. But their representation is much less stylised, and depending on the fonts your operating system is using to render them, they might be in color. There is also typically multiple icons for the same concept.

Camera Microphone Plus Sign Phone Headset

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