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I'm currently wireframing/"UXing" and doing the front-end dev work on the rebuild of a reasonably big intranet app with lots of data in various sections. To make things easier for the users to pick out the required data/section/whatever, I've made use (sparingly) of relevant icons so that they can scan the page and see exactly what they want without having to read everything/anything. For example, data/section relevant to credit cards has a small credit card icon, first aid has a red cross, telephone directory has, you guessed, it a telephone...

This is all brilliant, and so far the users have been getting "excited" about it, but I have a ton of other stuff where there is no specifically relevant icon. Is there any value in using "irrelevant" icons throughout the interface? For example, I have a section called "change", and I've used a fish icon - it stands out, and as users will be looking at the app often, they'll very quickly know what the fish means. As an analogy, I was thinking how mush easier it is to pick users out by their avatar (think Twitter in this instance) to identify their content rather than reading the names.

From a UX perspective:

  • is there any value in this for users, to make their lives easier? For the sake of consistency, I'd rather use icons for either all the content areas (say, 75% has a well-fitting icon already) or none at all, but feedback so far suggests that they're a big win for ease-of-use, so there's still 25% possibly facing being assigned "irrelevant" icons.
  • is there any particular reason not to use a mismatched icon for certain types of content? My thinking being that the icon is only a visual cue to be associated with and not representative of the content itself.
  • is there a better way of identifying/demarcating hard-to-label content? (I'm not looking for a list of what icons might be suitable for obscure content, more if there are perhaps alternative systems for labelling things that don't fit into "well-known" categories/divisions (I can't think of anything)). As this is a rebuild on an existing database, I can't start rearranging data structure/changing names/re-categorising anything, sadly.
  • FUN! Odd final point, but I like to make my apps "fun", as in not horrible dullard dry things that users dread using. Hence using the fish, to simply make the interface more "interesting". I always do this when I can (providing it doesn't detract from the functionality/usability of course), is there anything wrong with that?
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I am interested in the outcome of your question, but at the same time I wonder if maybe the real issue is coming up with icons for hard to categorize content or even categorizing content logically? –  kontur Jan 16 '13 at 14:44
    
@kontur - if I could rebuild the whole thing from the ground up with beautifully (and logically) structured data in a shiny new database then I'd be a happy man, but I can't do that for legacy issues. Also, some of the sections are quite "unique" and don't really fall into what one might consider more usual categories so standard icon meanings aren't really relevant. Besides, I actually want to put in some daft icons somewhere if I can! –  spuds Jan 16 '13 at 15:01
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4 Answers 4

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The problem with arbitrary icons is that they have to be learned - users have to go out of their way to discover what they mean. That's bad because you can't assume users will be willing to invest that learning time upfront. You know that it's worth doing, but your users don't because they can't know what features your software offers before they discover then.

Aesthetically, it would be nice to keep icons for everything, and it would allow you to present sibling items in the same way (which is good visual communication), but for usability purposes I'd stick with text for the items in question, even if that means text and icons side by side. Discovery of functionality is just that critical to product usability.

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You're right, and I'd certainly be wary of putting a "learning overhead" into a public-facing site, but as this is an intranet, I'm confident I can get away with it as they should be using this thing every day. I'm kind of inclined to think, "sod it" and make them think (yes, I have heard of that book) - ultimately they'll find the experience more rewarding, more fun, and a damn site quicker to use. Plus it would apease my aesthetic sensibilities if everything had an icon (they will of course have accompanying text labels too, as has always been intended). –  spuds Jan 17 '13 at 20:17
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My thinking being that the icon is only a visual cue to be associated with and not representative of the content itself.

I disagree, actually--I think the icon should represent the content. Wikipedia actually defines a computer icon as a representation of the content as well (emphasis mine):

The icon itself is a small picture or symbol serving as a quick, "intuitive" representation of a software tool, function or a data file accessible on the system.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer_icon

If you're only prototyping, just find some icon that's at least tangentially related. http://www.iconfinder.com/ is a good starting place!

If you really can't find anything, a generic icon (search for "star", "stack", "list", etc) is probably better than a non-sequitur. Abstract designs can be recognizable without being distracting. This article is a good introduction to using abstraction in icon design. See also cognitive dissonance.

Discoverability is really a big issue here. Even if a fish were to somehow make sense after a few uses, figuring out how to use the application the first time would be extremely frustrating.

Kudos for trying to introduce fun, but like you said, you can't sacrifice clarity for fun... especially in such an important tool :)

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There are problems with creating "irrelevant" associations with icons. Sometimes, the image you choose may cause unintended mental relationships with the user.

For example, I encountered some novice users that were reluctant to use a button with a paperclip on it (for attachments). In fact, they seemed to completely overlook, and be unaware of the button. Querying the users, the response was, "I thought that would make that annoying paperclip guy appear." Apparently, years later, Microsoft's use of a paperclip as "helpful" continues to confuse people. Be careful of unintended consequences to your use of signs and symbols.

I recommend at least some introductory reading into the field of semiotics. This article may be helpful:

http://www.markboulton.co.uk/journal/icons-symbols-and-a-semiotic-web

The field of semiotics is fairly deep with research. There are scientific journals dedicated to the study:

http://www.ut.ee/SOSE/sss/index.htm

http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/sem.2012.2012.issue-192/issue-files/sem.2012.2012.issue-192.xml

But there's no reason to get too caught up in it. The main point is that there are "hidden" or unconscious meanings to signs and symbols that ought to be considered before applying them as icons.

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+1 for including reference links to support your answer –  Charles Wesley Jan 16 '13 at 19:57
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I completely agree with being consistent. Considering you already have 75% of your categories with an icon, it would be a shame to use none at all.

Visual cues are a great way of reminding a user where they can find an item they have used previously in the past. Visual cues mainly work so well because the icon itself is representative of its content. I don't exactly agree in purposely using "irrelevant" icons for this very reason.

When I think of "change" a fish doesn't exactly spring to mind first ;) Personally, I think arrows rotating in a circle is quite indicative of change. Something similar to this:

Refresh Icon There is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to make your interface more fun to use. A fun interface promotes learning and recognition. I don't think this should be done by using irrelevant category icons though. This should be implemented in the overall design and colour scheme.

I don't know what your app does or if this is even feasible but could the hard to define categories be placed in a category called "Miscellaneous"? The miscellaneous category could actually be very well suited with a fun / irrelevant icon, such as a fish.

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