I am working on a web based hosted CRM personal project which I will release to public ones it is done. My goal is to create a CRM with absolutely zero to none learning or training requirement. To do so I am focusing on clean and simple interface. I did some comprising of other CRM's and majority of the time there bloated with bunch of menus and other stuff especially Dynamics CRM if you ever used it.

But this is not about that, during the interface design I started to work on the menu. The problem that arises is that I am using icons back-ended by Tipsy to display tool-tip of the icon description, for example hovering over Dashboard icon will show Tip at the bottom with text: Dashboard or hovering over Contacts icons will show: Clients & Companies tool-tip.

I personally understand what the icons are and all, but for the goal to be achieved it has to be simple for any-one to use no matter the age or sex, just plain simple. The only confusion Icons create is lack of text and some may not always remember what the icons are. Attached is the image of the current Top Menu UI, I would like some professional feedback should I continue the use of icons or should I go with text based navigation instead.

Dashboard UI

Icons Based:

enter image description here

Text Based:

enter image description here

Text Based Simplified: Refer to: http://cl.ly/MZdt

enter image description here

4 Answers 4


If you are going to open this application up to allow for customers to create their own entities and map that structure to their line of business then it will become an icon nightmare very quickly.

Almost no organization will use a CRM exactly as it arrives as a fresh install. The two CRM implementations I have done required very different entities mapped to each other in different ways as the business requirements were very different (one dealt with the marketing funnel, the other with managing ongoing customer relationships).

While your icons in your initial example are moderately to mostly "guessable" that is only because you are working with a set number of entities that are fairly generic.

What icon would you use for a custom entity that would have any kind of meaning?

It is better to use text because there is not that great of a hit in terms of the UI so long as you keep the maxlength of the field to a reasonable size. And you give yourself maximum flexibility for the demands that are going to be put on that UI element once you let your customers loose.

So for a higher probability of success over many implementations in many different verticals, I would go with text. It isn't as sexy but in the long run it has higher odds of serving your user better. Which is a good thing!

  • This is a great piece of advice. I agree with you in regards to icons it is a nightmare just to find a reasonably good one for whatever you are doing, unless you have 100,000 custom made icons for all picks but its not so. I will probably go with my alternative text simplified with use of drop down menus grouping relative options under one generic term like Contacts houses: Clients + Organizations or Tracker houses: Calendar + Tasks. Here is the idea I will probably use: cl.ly/MZdt also this is a hosted CRM by me and custom fields are not in development plan's yet Jan 31, 2013 at 20:40
  • It really does depend on the application's features. Were you to allow custom entities it would be even more difficult as the customers themselves would be creating the entities AND picking the icons. Unsupervised. Which means you would have a bowling ball representing sales leads because the customer thinks a bowling ball means a strike which is a metaphor for sales. Or something! Good luck! Jan 31, 2013 at 20:43
  • Say what in you're view is the most logical way to allow for custom inputs in different features, the problem does not lie in the inputs it actually is in the database structure. The CRM that I am doing is for generally a small business or a freelancer with low pricing starting as low as $5 enough for me to cover server cost + set aside something for hardware updates. I also will be providing dedicated databases to thous who have no interest in using shared. See this is my problem its the database scheme that is killing me in regards to custom fields. Jan 31, 2013 at 20:47
  • That would be a great question for the DBA or Programmers SE! I've seen it where custom entities are defined in an XML schema which is saved to the database. I've also seen it where custom entities are scripted as new tables. You have to think about a lot of things like performance, how easy it would be to add/remove fields from an element after the user has created a 10,000 rows, etc. I'm a developer that is strongest in the presentation and business layer, so everything past the DAL is not my expertise beyond the basics. Jan 31, 2013 at 20:50
  • 1
    I see, well for now I will stick with generic fields and options, because this is simply for keeping track of clients, organizations and tasks, I do allow for as most fields for each as I can possibly have for most used and needed options. But in regards to custom fields I think I will wait first and see where I and few other friends of mine go with this. And thanks for advice Jan 31, 2013 at 20:53

Though the icons look nice, text is easier to understand than icons. It takes away any guess work involved with your navigation.

From a guess, the icons appear to me as:

Dashboard, User, Date, Statistics, Archive, New (something)

Even if I somehow got these icons correct (I would be surprised), you can be more specific with text.

Such as: User Profile, Scheduled Dates, Firm Statistics, New Quote

  • Actually you did get it almost correct :) Statistics = Sales and Archives = Cases and New = Add (Contact, Client, Case, ect I was planning a drop down for this one). The only problem with text based navigation is that it takes more space then its icon counterpart, but I may be forced to use text instead of icons Jan 31, 2013 at 20:06
  • I'm surprised. I agree icons do visually look nicer, but they are still more ambiguous than text. You could possibly combine them together, though if you're worried about space, that might not be possible.
    – Chris N.
    Jan 31, 2013 at 20:17
  • I added another file this time with how it looks with text, see it uses more space. My only option is to chunk things together into a drop down so say Contacts would be Clients + Companies in dropdown Jan 31, 2013 at 20:19
  • Is there a reason why there are 6 icon links and 8 text links?
    – Chris N.
    Jan 31, 2013 at 20:24
  • Calendar icon = Calendar + Tasks, Contact icon = Clients + Organizations, they where grouped so if you group this two you will get the 6 icons or 8 links its all correct, my only possible alternative would be to create two drop downs. Contacts = Clients + Organizations and Tracker = Calendar + Tasks, this would decrease navigation size because its "Organizations" that's eating a fairly large chunk of navigation Jan 31, 2013 at 20:26

Have you considered doing icon and text? Get the benefit of both worlds.

Are you expecting mobile users? I don't know if there are any support but mobile users won't be able to see the text tip because of the lack of mouseover support.

  • For mobile there will be a separate UI based on jQuery Mobile UI. Also doing both Icons + Text seems a bit of a space waste because text will eat-up most of the space, which causes problems down the road for smaller screens like tablets. Jan 31, 2013 at 20:17

I would go with the text based. You can do some modern and compelling effects with them HTML5 and CSS3 too if visual appeal is a concern. text would have faster performance, enable easier customization, and think of the accessibility uptake (you'd need to provide text equivalents for screenreaders used by the visually impaired user anyway).

Hovering to see tooltip text seems minor. But it adds up to lost productivity over time. And as Steve Krug says, you don't want users to think before acting...:)

  • The icons where base64 encoded so speed was not of major issue, it was more simplicity to the user with ability to just use it out of the box. Create account, Login and Enjoy this is really it, no books, no training, no tutorials needed. Just something around K.I.S.S. Jan 31, 2013 at 20:54

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