Are Icons a New Thing? Hardly. Ancient Egyptians used them to communicate all the time!
However, since 2014 icons have grown in popularity, in web design.
So, is this an innovation or fad?
In other words, do icons improve usability? If they don’t add clarity, i.e. no-one knows what the icon means, it serves no purpose.
Skeuomorphism. Adding Meaning
Skeuomorphism is a long established design technique. To communicate meaning, take something comfortably familiar, to represent something new and alien.
Here’s an example of an icon Ambrose Designs recently created. This letter icon(physical) represents email(virtual).
Getting More Abstract Icons Adopted
What happens when there is no obvious familiar physical representation? Abstract icons need to be learnt and, as such, are far harder to get adopted.
In late 2013, I did some direct user-testing, to see if people knew what this icon meant. The location pin, indicating a map link, was still reasonably unfamiliar. Only due to it’s adoption by GoogleMaps and other high profile sites, was it’s meaning learnt and understood.
2014’s Major New Abstract Icon
Originally called the navicon, this icon started being used in 2014, when more websites became optimised for phones.
For opening navigation menus, it was renamed ‘the sandwich’, before becoming known as ‘the hamburger’.
Missing the Signpost
Research at the time, by James Foster of web publishing company, Exis, showed recognition of the hamburger with website visitors was relatively slow.
This posed a major problem, with visitors ignoring this icon and all content beyond the site’s home page. Bounce rates went sky high!
James Foster’s study of 240,000 unique visitors, replaced an unlabelled ‘hamburger’ icon with the word ‘MENU’. This increased menu link click throughs by 20%. Read more >
In conclusion, for more abstract icons, hybrids provide a temporary solution. They allow quickened navigation for those familiar with the icon, whilst the label aids those not yet up to speed.
PLEASE NOTE: Hamburgers hide signposts, so only use on phones! They make no sense on desktop views or tablets, even though Times Magazine has done just that.
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