14 April 2015

Nielsen Norman Group: “Icon Usability”

Icons Need a Text Label

To help overcome the ambiguity that almost all icons face, a text label must be present alongside an icon to clarify its meaning in that particular context. (And even if you’re using a standard icon, it’s often safer to include a label, especially if you slightly altered the icon to match your aesthetic preferences or constraints.)

Icon labels should be visible at all times, without any interaction from the user. For navigation icons, labels are particularly critical. Don’t rely on hover to reveal text labels: not only does it increase the interaction cost, but it also fails to translate well on touch devices.

Aurora Bedford

I remember when, a while back, Gmail introduced a new design replacing the text labels on the buttons with icons. Suffice to say, people were not pleased! So much so, that the Gmail team was forced to add back the option to show text labels in the web interface. Even so, some ambiguity persists in the all-too similar icons for ‘Back’ and ‘Reply’.Gmail buttons icon vs. text


Text is the most socially useful communication technology. It works well in 1:1, 1:N, and M:N modes. It can be indexed and searched efficiently, even by hand. It can be translated. It can be produced and consumed at variable speeds. It is asynchronous. It can be compared, diffed, clustered, corrected, summarized and filtered algorithmically. It permits multiparty editing. It permits branching conversations, lurking, annotation, quoting, reviewing, summarizing, structured responses, exegesis, even fan fic. The breadth, scale and depth of ways people use text is unmatched by anything. There is no equivalent in any other communication technology for the social, communicative, cognitive and reflective complexity of a library full of books or an internet full of postings. Nothing else comes close.

So this is my stance on text: always pick text first. As my old boss might have said: always bet on text. If you can use text for something, use it. It will very seldom let you down.


That’s one of the main reasons why email remains such a powerful and wide-spread communication tool, despite all the attempts to replace it.

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