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I was wondering what was the universal symbol of "import data" when I noticed that Google Drive is using the up arrow for "upload" from your desktop which means to "import" in Google Drive.

Actually they use the expression "Import" in french (see picture on the right).

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I agree that the arrow must be up for upload but it should be down for import right?

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    Import and Export are technically different from Upload/Download. Up/down is based on the local connection (up is always to the cloud) but import/export is based on the context (an export from your system is an import to their system). So regardless of an "import" icon, the Drive icon is clearly intended as an "upload" icon. – Ben Brocka Jun 6 '13 at 14:12
  • Hi HighKickX, welcome to UX.se! Your question, as it stands now, is asking suggestion for an icon. Icon (suggestion) questions are not allowed on UX.se. Read faq for what type of questions are allowed and other information. – rk. Jun 6 '13 at 14:26
  • Hi @rk., thank you! You are referring to I'm having trouble coming up with a good icon for feature X. Should I ask here for ideas?. I am not asking suggestion for an icon, I am asking what is clear or not in people's minds and what convention is commonly used in a particular case. Are sure this is off topic? What can I do to make it more suitable? – Jérôme Jun 7 '13 at 8:10
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French word for upload is télécharger not quite sure why google decided to go with Importer.

"Import is derived from the conceptual meaning as the goods and services into the port of a country" wiki

So the arrow should be pointing towards the object/down

  • The problem is that in french "télécharger" also means to download, I think that's why they chose "importer". – Jérôme Jun 6 '13 at 9:57
  • well that doesn't help! It's a good reason to pressure French people to come up with a different word for upload :D – Igor-G Jun 6 '13 at 10:00
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In Google Drive in English, "Import" has a separate meaning: bringing the content from an existing document (such as an Excel Spreadsheet) into a Google document. I don't know why the French version labels upload thusly, but as I'm sure you are aware, language translation is a complicated issue. Words don't map one-to-one between languages, and usage often differs.

There is a sticky underlying issue, here, though: up and down arrows are idiomatic for two different functions: upload/download and export/import.

In the context of Google Drive, an import operation is also an upload operation. Using a down arrow for import would likely create confusion.

In an internet-related context, I would suggest reserving up and down arrows for upload and download (since the symbol is much more closely related to the words), and coming up with something else for import and export.

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I see why the word 'Import' can be confusing here, but it must be understood that the usage here is from Google's perspective. I mean to say that the meaning of the word 'import' can vary depending on which side you're looking at it from (exactly like the words left and right, or any other set of dual prepositions).

To clarify: in the case of a desktop application, 'importing' would refer to obtaining a file onto your local machine from some external source (and hence be symbolized with a down- arrow). However, in case of a web application (as with Google Drive in question), 'importing' would mean getting the file onto the web server, from your local machine. So you see why the up-arrow makes sense?

  • Yes, I see why it does make sense but it is really confusing. As @Igor-G quoted Wikipedia "Import is derived from the conceptual meaning as the goods and services into the port of a country", then the arrow in my opinion should point to the object. – Jérôme Jun 7 '13 at 8:29
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To state it simply, there is none.

The main difficulty in attempting to identify a set of actions only through icons is that there are very few which most can universally agree upon. It is almost always better to use words, or at the very least, use word/icon pairs.

Here's what I do when I'm curious whether there's a universally identifiable icon or symbol for a word:

  1. Go to Google Image Search
  2. Set the size to Icon
  3. Search on the word in question

Unless 95% or more of the top results are essentially the same symbol, there is no standardized symbol.

  • This is what I usually do but this is not an exact science and it is not clear on "import file" – Jérôme Jun 7 '13 at 8:15
  • @HighKickX, isn't the fact that it is not clear on import file exactly the point? There is no standard symbol: up arrows, down arrows, right arrows, left arrows, and diagonal arrows are used in conjunction with other symbols. – user31143 Jun 7 '13 at 8:45

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