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More websites are including icons and visual elements over text allowing for more space and cleaner design. Elements like social icons (FB, Twitter), views, likes, favorite, comments, etc don't require text as users know what they do and mean. I'd like to implement an abbreviated element showing when content was added, but I'd like to know if the general population of users will know what this means.

Will users understand this means X days ago and is this an accepted means of showing time? This will change according to the time, i.e W (week), M (month), Y (year).

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I find uppercase D for days a bit confusing, especially in the combination 3D. –  CodesInChaos Mar 17 '13 at 9:31
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How about using 3日? Clear and unambiguous :P –  CodesInChaos Mar 17 '13 at 9:43
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4 Answers

Accessbility matters.

On the Web, you have tools, use them :

  • The abbr element, for abbreviations. Very handy.
  • The title attribute, for descriptions. It shows a tooltip on graphic Web browsers.
  • The alt attribute for images. It is mandatory.
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There are basically three conditions in which an abbreviation will be understood:

  1. The abbreviation is already a standard use
  2. There is only one, common term the abbreviated form could resolve to.
  3. There is sufficient context or accompanying iconography for users to guess the meaning of the cypher.

Users will probably understand the example you've given because it satisfies all three of these cases.

That being said, the number of users who understand the abbreviation will always be less than the number who understand the full version. I can't tell you how many (that may be domain and audience specific), but I would ask whether this is really necessary. Is the potential loss of clarity really worth the three extra characters?

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On the Web, don't expect all users to see the iconography. Hence the usefulness of the — mandatory — alt attribute. –  Nicolas Barbulesco Mar 17 '13 at 9:57
    
@NicolasBarbulesco - in non-visual media, there isn't need to abbreviate for compactness reasons anyway. –  Jimmy Breck-McKye Mar 17 '13 at 17:29
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There is no universal answer to this question. What your users will understand may be very different from what my users understand. You really have to make informed choices and then test them with your user base.

That said, there are a few abbreviations that are almost universal:
- Months of the year: Jan, Feb, Mar, etc.
- Days of the week: Mon, Tue, Wed, etc.
- Time: hr, min, sec (and in context, d, h, m, s)

Whatever you do, you need to test it with your users.

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I'm sure this doesn't apply to the OP, but I'm really concerned that these sorts of questions around "universal behaviours" might belie a tendency to rely on the "insights" of a UX field that's still young and highly contested over real-world validation. –  Jimmy Breck-McKye Mar 16 '13 at 0:40
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@JimmyBreck-McKye I think the UX insights help you make a better first guess, but that doesn't at all take away from the need for real-world validation. –  JohnGB Mar 16 '13 at 0:51
    
The abbreviation min is standard and well understood. But your abbreviations hr and sec are far from universal, they are wrong. The correct abbreviations are h, min, s. –  Nicolas Barbulesco Dec 15 '13 at 5:00
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As CodesInChaos mentioned 3D is so ubiquitous in another context that it is not the right choice because automatic associations have to be overridden.

The caps choice also is problematic: "3D AGO" looks like a weird year, or other code.

There is another tension in your design as the icon does not correspond directly to your concept: clocks represent minutes and hours, not days. (They do signal the passage of time as a general concept though so I understand the initial choice).

I would use a calendar icon and the text "3 days ago" (arranged serially or text within icon if space is a major constraint).

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