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Background

We're providing a dashboard to our users, where they can set up their most important features. It is possible to show certain metrics (business figures), have widgets for quick actions, queried list views and deep links to certain pages/functionality or - if needed - links to external websites.

Many of those things contain icons (in addition to text labels) to make them easily recognisable.

Links for example can appear as tiles, like so:

link tile example

Problem

Since the user has control over their dashboard, we figured it would only be reasonable to let them choose their own icons for their dashboard components.

Therefore we want to provide an icon set for the users to choose from.

  • If the icon set is too small, users will probably not be very happy with their options, and we will gradually have to add more and more icons (also because the system is still growing in width and depth).
  • If we provide a large icon set - say Material Icon Font for example - pretty much every use case will be covered for years to come. On the other hand, users will find it very tedious to scan through 1000+ icons to find what's best for them.

Question(s)

How do we find a balance between too few options and overwhelming our users? Is it sensible to provide a huge icon set if it is searchable? I'm not sure if this approach might work, since icons can be ambiguous and users might not find their desired icon because of a "false" search term.

Are there any best practices when it comes to customisation or icon sets?

Any input is greatly appreciated!

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  • Do your users have a background that would help them understand what icons mean, and to be able to pick the right ones? For example, engineers or designers? – Izquierdo Aug 14 '20 at 20:19
  • Generally speaking, the user group in this case is relatively well educated, although not necessarily in a design or engineering context. The idea is though, that they can pick whatever icon is "right" for them. It doesn't really matter what the icon is supposed to mean as long as it makes sense to them. – QWERTZdenker Aug 17 '20 at 7:48
  • Would the dashboard be shared with other users? For example, would a team leader set it up, and then consumed by team members? Or is this strictly the user setting it up for themselves? – Izquierdo Aug 17 '20 at 15:09
  • Yes, this will certainly be the case for some of our customers. That a team leader will set it up and members will have no customisation permissions. – QWERTZdenker Aug 19 '20 at 6:31
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I am not going to tell you which one to pick, because I think it really needs to be a decision you make yourself based on your target audience. However, I will provide some suggestions to help remove your concerns to each option and hopefully help with your decision.

Small Set

  • Focus your selection based on the type of data your users will be working with. That way you are more likely to cover most use cases.
  • You can always expand the set later on. So don't assume users will not be happy, wait until they request more icons and then you can expand.
  • Based on your example, it would be useful to allow the user to choose a colour too. This goes a long way in making a small set of icons meet more use cases, as they can re-use the same icons easier.

Large Set

  • Make sure you group your icons into a handful of categories to help search.
  • Provide a "Recommended" category. This would basically be the icons you would have chosen for the "small set".
  • Provide a quick search option (free text).
  • Make sure your search isn't just based on name. You wan't to have common aliases for each one too. This is important to avoid your "false search" concern. Font awesome search might give you some ideas

Direct Answers

With the above in mind, I will try answer yours questions directly too:

How do we find a balance between too few options and overwhelming our users?

Provide icons that are actually relevant to the data, not just every novelty icon you can get your hands on. Design a good layout and search feature. Avoid displaying a big long list on one page. Provide a "common icons" function.

Is it sensible to provide a huge icon set if it is searchable?

Yes it's sensible, if that is what your target users are going to require. (How much does it really matter if they can't choose the perfect icon? It's just a bit of "flair" anyway.)

Are there any best practices when it comes to customisation or icon sets?

As with a lot of UX decisions, the best practice is often to survey your target users and find out what their preference is. You might find out that they don't really care about icons to begin with, and put more importance on a clear and descriptive title for each dashboard element.

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  • Thank you for your answer, this actually helps a lot! We have the option to change the "icon color" globally, because some customers want to apply their corporate design to our system, but if I understand you correctly, you're suggesting to give single icons different colors, right? So users could use the same icon twice but with different colors? Could you elaborate a bit why this might be useful or maybe have a concrete example? I'm a bit reluctant to convey meaning through color alone because of accessability reasons. – QWERTZdenker Aug 17 '20 at 7:57
  • @QWERTZdenker: The colour suggestion was just something I thought of that might help a small set become more useful. Let's say you only have one icon available to represent a "person", but you need 2 views for Users and Contacts. You could then use the same icon for both but perhaps users is blue, and contacts is green. On first glance you think "why those colours for those thing", but if I am using the dashboard all the time my brain will quickly start to make the association valid, and in no time I don't have to even read the item name, I just know which colour icon I want to click on. – musefan Aug 17 '20 at 8:11
  • @QWERTZdenker: I am not saying the colour thing will definitely work out, it was just a suggestion of something that might be worth investigating further if you choose to have a restricted icon set. Plus, if you have a lot of items and all the icons are the same colour it starts to make it difficult to pick out items when everything looks the same at first glance. – musefan Aug 17 '20 at 8:13
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Hick's Law is a principle that would apply here:

The time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices.

Generally, users want a system to make intelligent choices for them, so they can spend their time doing their core job functions. A lot of non-designers might find the icon-selection task to be beyond their abilities, or they might use a glyph that they "like" but doesn't really make sense for other users.

Consider providing a few good-fitting options for each item that needs an icon, with a "Custom..." option that allows users to search the entire set (or upload their own).

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  • Thanks for your answer! As I mentioned under Danielillo's answer, we're already trying to provide well-fitting icons for all the given functionality. However, if a customer sets up their own functionality, then we will not be able to determine what would be a "good" icon. – QWERTZdenker Aug 19 '20 at 6:36
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I think you have to interpret well what type of customization to perform, at first glance I think there are two types:

  • Playful
  • Functional

The playful customization pursues a pleasant relationship between the user and the interface according to their aesthetic preferences or comfort in use. As a non-essential alternative option, the user has more time to choose, so they can have infinite resources, as happens with the skins in some applications.

When customization is only for functional aspects, prioritize this last aspect: functionality, so the user wants to perform this customization in the easiest and fastest way possible to continue using the application. If time in relation to functionality is paramount in the use of an application, personally I would not give an infinite choice of alternatives.

In other words, if you offer a customization with an infinite number of icons, you are imposing extra work on the user to have to review all the available icons. The result is usually in these cases that the customization is useless since the user doesn't want to waste time or have extra work.

My solution would be instead of giving work to the user, that work is done by whoever is creating the application and offer an optimal result to the user.

For example, divide the infinity of icons into small groups, set a base icon by default and offer a group (5 or 6 maximum) of alternatives to that icon:

enter image description here

*Icons from thenounproject.com

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  • Thank you for your input, it is greatly appreciated! For all the common functions and whatever is set up out of the box, we are providing already set up standard icons. However, users might set up their own filters/queries and therefore we cannot cover any possible cases. So by your terminology, I would say that this is a functional customization although it is not blocking the user. Only if they decide to establish their own shortcuts or routines, they will have to choose an icon. We're planning to provide a default icon too, for the lazy ones :) – QWERTZdenker Aug 17 '20 at 8:32
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Iconography is a complex thing and a high risk field when it comes to customisation. It needs a professional hand. Despite we all have a bit of a designer in ourselves, burden users with this task could sound fun at the beginning until, confusion would start to be established in the business.

I would recommend research with a group of users to understand advantages of this business choice. Do your users really want a new set of icons or, instead some kind of personalisation which can be obtained with themes where colours and typography change instead of more structural elements such as iconography.

If you instead want to give different looks for the same icon then that is better.

Iconography is connected to the concept of affordances, by giving us the ability for interaction with physical objects... lens icon for search... floppy disk for save. Each icon has a meaning, connected to mental maps established along the years. An icon takes times to be accepted to be connected to a certain meaning, action, usage...

There is a really good book I would like to recommend : “The Design of Everyday Things” from Don Norman (revised version). It talks about this and another concept, Signifiers. Signifiers specify how people discover what actions are possible. Maybe reader has this a bit more.

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