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In web UI as of late there seems to be a change in how actions (buttons and links) are displayed. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Actions are hidden until the user scrolls over the "thing" upon which the action can be taken.
  • Actions are text-less, using just an icon to describe what they do. Upon hovering the icon, a tooltip will appear.

In both of these cases it seems that form has been chosen over function. E.g. at first it's not that obvious what actions can be taken. Once a user gets used to it, however, it will no longer be an issue.

Do these represent positive UX or UX gone wrong?

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3 Answers 3

Not to fall back on the stereotypical design non-answer, but... "It depends."

A few examples that come to mind:

  • Google no longer shows "cached" links and now requires you to click on an arrow next to a search result to get to them
  • Facebook removed the submit button on status updates

In both cases, friends who I consider intelligent and technical were confused and irritated by the changes and didn't immediately understand how to achieve their goal. Some responded with "Wow, I feel stupid" and some with "Wow, I hate [insert company here]" but neither is an optimal result.

Part of the problem is the method of communicating changes to users. Suppose you're on the main page of Google or Facebook and you want to quickly see a list of what features have been changed / added or what interface changes have occurred. Where do you go?

There are circumstances where I consider it valid to make changes that may confuse / upset users. Sometimes the benefit outweighs the cost. However, there are fewer circumstances where I consider it valid to make those changes without explaining what they are and the rationale behind them... and having that explanation be somewhere easily accessible vs. a post buried 12 menus deep.

There are many products that billions of people use that they simultaneously don't like or enjoy. If something better comes along, they're not necessarily going to have loyalty. Trust is important, and communication helps build trust...

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Sometimes labeling everything is impossible or unfeasible when you have lots of controls, and may actually make it much much harder to interact with a control. Let's take an example that hits close to home:
enter image description here

Look at all those icons! Sure some are familiar, but let's try and fix this by giving each a clear label!

enter image description here

Well...no, we've merely compounded the problem of too many options, because now there's also too much text, and we've made scanning impossible. You can fix the scanning issue by adding icons to the labels, but then there's even more clutter to read over.

The fact of the matter is these icons represent secondary, advanced tasks. Users shouldn't be bombarded with copy explaining every control when most are probably going to write a plaintext answer, then look for the submit button; this is why the submit button is nicely labeled. Text walks us through the basic features so we don't need to ask questions, but the icons keep everything visually simple and lets advanced users recognize things by icons.

At a higher level what we're doing is optimizing common tasks for recognition and complex tasks for recall.

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Good answer! I agree with all of this, thanks. –  Josh M. Nov 7 '11 at 17:09

I always encourage my clients to avoid icons without labels. Sure, a play button icon is fairly recognizable in context, but very few icon pictograms are truly universally recognized. When working with abstract concepts as is so often the case in a web or mobile application, 16 x 16 pixels is just not enough information for people to know what an icon will actually do.

Similarly, without some visual affordance to let users know actions are available, hidden actions are often never discovered.

Both of these trends stem from a desire to make interfaces look cleaner and uncluttered, which is laudable. However, the now infamous statistic stating that most users don't even know to use command+F to search for text within a page clearly shows that hidden actions are usually never discovered by anyone except for power users.

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Makes sense, but as Ben pointed out, there are times when you would want text and times when you wouldn't. Thanks for the answer. –  Josh M. Nov 7 '11 at 17:09
    
Definitely :) However, when space is limited, I generally go for just text instead of just icons. –  Nadine Schaeffer Nov 7 '11 at 17:12

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