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If you use Adobe Photoshop to edit your images, there's this toolbox, from which you can select the tool you want to use.

I'm designing a similar program than manipulates blueprints instead of images, and I want to use the same model, where the user selects a tool that will affect the current blueprint. The catch is that the tools will necessarily be nonstandard, use unfamiliar icons, and be hard to understand, at least at first.

When a user is unfamiliar with tools that a program is capable of, what is the best way to help the user to understand exactly what a tool does?

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Text: explain, in one or two words, what a tool will accomplish. Provide the option for labels next to the buttons and use tooltips.

Metaphors: refer to everyday tools people know and understand. This helps people guess what a tool will do and also helps them remember.

Demonstrate: explain common tools at the first use of the application, e.g. with a video. You can also do this during use of the application. Try Sketchup, it's awesome, targeting both novices and power users, and solves this problem in a very friendly and useful way.

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+1 Apart from the fact that I have never been able to get Sketchup to do what I wanted to accomplish :-) – Marjan Venema May 19 '13 at 16:35

Augment the graphic symbol (or icon) with a text name. When learns the association between the icon and it's name, the text names could be set to hidden in the settings to save screen real estate.

If this application will not need to support touch UIs, hovering over a tool could bring up a box with a description of the tool (e.g. "Rotates the selected item(s)").

Steal some ideas from the Balsamiq wireframing tool (used by this stackexchange when one inserts a wireframe in a post), it's extremely quick to learn.

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