At what point is it appropriate to use a single icon space to represent the current state of something, and when is it appropriate to use several icon spaces (one for each possible status) with the one representing the current status being the one that is "on."

Example (active status):

Status: (green)
Status: (red - OFF) (yellow - OFF) (green - ON) (white - OFF)

My initial thought is to use a single icon space for items in a list or table format, while using the multiple space format for something like overall application status. It adds some distinction between the two types of status, but other than that I can't really see why I shouldn't just use the single icon space for both, since it is simpler and easy to interpret.

I'm looking for pros and cons of both approaches, and if there is a standard I failed to find that already addresses the question. Please assume that in both cases there would be hover text or some other form of textual information that further describes the status. I'm not looking for the metaphor to use - it's more about the arrangement of the metaphor.

1 Answer 1


If your end users are already aware of what states are available, then you can use one icon. For example, if you have a single on/off state change.

However, you cannot always assume that. Two recent examples I encountered were two routers we have been testing.

One of them has a LED that is blue when the router's on, red when it's off; so far, so good. And then, for no obvious reason, it goes green. I had to read the manual to see that green is when it's on but noone is connected. Bad UX.

The other router had three icons. They were either red or completely off. So, when they were off the shape of the icons was not visible. If you had not memorised the shape you wouldn't know which icon went off. You'd have to read the manual. Bad UX.

That is, one or many icons can both lead to bad UX, depending on implementation. Know your users, and if they actually know the states be minimal; otherwise, make sure you explain the states to the users.

  • These are excellent examples. I think that on/off and users connected/not connected are two distinct states. Blending them makes it confusing. It's as if you designed a light switch with 3 positions: one if the light was off, one if it was on, and another if it was on and people were in the room. Oct 3, 2013 at 19:18
  • Thanks for your feedback! This is good info. I'm going to wait a couple days to mark it as the answer, as having an answer discourages additional answers that may have additional content, but these have given me more to think about.
    – Travis
    Oct 4, 2013 at 14:29

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