I maintain an enterprise intranet application which has extensive logging. After reviewing months of error logs we focused on one trouble spot where the user must enter mandatory activities before completing a transaction. New users and users with years of experience would try and complete a transaction and receive an error message when everything was not done.

It can be said that this is a design issue as you should not allow a user to start something that is not allowed due to business logic but I can see that the application's designers figured using icons to indicate that something must be done was good enough.

We notice similar issues with the search icon being ignored when business logic dictates that you must have a validated search result or a new entry.

Is it an accepted practice to use icons to indicate actions that must be done before the transaction can be completed?

Would we be better off to add text cues or redesign the interface so that users cannot press Save and receive an error message telling them what they should have done?

Are there any studies that indicate what percentage of users understand what icons are and act on them?

  • 1
    After reviewing the great answers we are going to: change the icon indicating mandatory to red from blue, disable the save button until mandatory elements are completed and add a detailed text warning near the mandatories
    – kevinskio
    Commented Nov 22, 2011 at 13:29

4 Answers 4


Short answer, yes it is bad practice.

If it is a web application I would propose to use one or more of these options combined.

  • As long as not all necessary actions are performed grey out the proceed button and disable its functionality.
  • Add some kind of visual indicator around the element that is necessary to show the user what is missing.
  • Display a well readable but not too intrusive warning message either below the elements that need attention or above the proceed button.

If possible make those indicators dynamic, that is a dynamic process validation. Let's say the user fills out a text area misses one text area which is necessary in between, that is he already moved below the necessary text area, display a warning immediately. Don't wait until the user finished his work flow and thought that he is ready for the next step otherwise you'll force the user into the same think-flow again and he has to start all over again to understand what needs to be done.

The element highlighting should not be only a color but a combination of color and an icon next to that element due to accessibility. The icon should be distinct and really tell the user right away that his attention is required.


Put always a text label near an icon. It should be meaningful and descriptive of what the user can do clicking on it.

  • I strongly disagree. If you need a label to explain an icon, the icon is not doing any job in first place.
    – Erion
    Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 13:06
  • 1
    Very few icons are universal and cross cultural. Text should also be provided to add clarity. Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 13:37
  • Sorry, got a bit carried off with my previous comment. What I mean is that a text label should not be used to "patch" (i.e. explain) a poor icon choice in first place. To augment it or to clarify an abstract concept for which there is no pictorial representation, it's fine. Matt, thanks for making me understand I hurried too much :)
    – Erion
    Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 21:01

In addition to other suggestions listed here, consider a status bar indicating progress through the user flow. If they have completed steps 1 and 2 of a three step process, it should be easy to indicate that the user cannot proceed until step 3 has been completed.

It does sound like you're due for an interface (re)design.


@zetareticoli: Don Norman, "The design of everyday things": Somehow, when a device as simple as a door has to come with an instruction manual -- even a one-word manual -- then it is a failure, poorly designed.

@kevinsky: our job is to make sure users can use our products easily. If users still can't do that, it's almost never the user's fault. Consider using an interlocking mechanism to make sure users follow the right steps. I.e. one step should become available only after completing a previous step.

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