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How unusable is it to use icons as checkboxes?

It's a cool concept when it is implemented, however I am worried that it is not obvious that the icon is clickable. What are people's opinions about a) using the same icon both in a view mode and in an edit mode or b) swapping the icon for a check box when switching from read mode to edit mode?

Wireframes showing the described options. 1 - using icons for viewing and editing. 2 - using icon when viewing but check box when editing

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If your question is "how unusable", the answer is probably "very". – eleanor.mal May 14 '13 at 21:45
If you feel like you have to use icons, then when you switch to edit mode, surround them each with a 3d button frame. Make the selected ones depressed. That at least will give them the idea they're clickable. – kbelder May 14 '13 at 23:12
up vote 5 down vote accepted

When designing an interface, you should focus on making it as easy to use as you can, not on doing something new for the sake of it. And as your question stands you haven't really shown what the problem with checkboxes is that you are going to solve with icons and colours.

So breaking it down with specific reasons:

  • Checkboxes clearly indicate their state without the need for a legend, but using different coloured icons does not. "Is orange the selected state? Wait, no, maybe it's black."
  • Checkboxes are immediately recognisable and they indicate their interaction model without the need of any explanation. Icons do none of this. Even with the title asking about icons as checkboxes, it still took me a while to work out what the icons were there for - and that was only because I saw the checkbox example next to it.
  • You aren't proposing any improvement other than possibly preferring icons visually over checkboxes. Here I would argue that the checkboxes are cleaner with lower cognitive load, and hence a better design.

TL;DR: Don't use icons as checkboxes.

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If it feels like the icons need to be included for some purpose (e.g. if consistency with the view mode seems important), the checkboxes can just appear beside the icons when editing. Though that does create some additional clutter. – Ilari Kajaste May 15 '13 at 11:52

In a very general sense there is nothing inherently wrong with using an icon to indicate some binary state (for instance visible/not visible for a page in a CMS), provided the implementation is sound. But the fact that you're suggesting that these icons could be substituted for checkboxes in 'edit mode' does rather suggest that they would represent the same yes/no state as a checkbox, in which case the established convention is obviously the way to go, as per the first answer.

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