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icons are a good way to improve people's ability to remember things. The question is how many icons are reasonable for an enterprise application. I talk about small ~16x16px icons.

Currently the company is using something between 2000 and 4000 icons to differ between most of available important objects (and their states) in the system. If user knows the meaning of all icons they are working with - it's great, but I don't think this is the case.

A side-question is how many "overlay icons" should be used like "this object is in error state (error sign)", "this object is completed (checkmark)" or simply "show me settings of this object (gear-wheel)".

  • Is that 3000 icons, or 3000 combinations of icons. E.g are the icons build up in a logical way that the users understand? – Ian Apr 28 '14 at 13:36
  • partially. I would say at least 1000 unique icons. – Gustav Apr 28 '14 at 13:50
  • There are very few users who would routinely recognize and be able to distinguish 1000 icons! Maybe a few dozen. Think about how often people mistake one icon for another on their phone's screens. Consider some other way to organize information. – Alex Feinman Apr 28 '14 at 17:45
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icons are a good way to improve people's ability to remember things.

If you go poke at the research you'll find that this isn't true. The references at http://uxmyths.com/post/715009009/myth-icons-enhance-usability will get you started.

That's not to say icons are without value. For example if you absolutely need to pack in a large number of tools in a small amount of screen real estate a tool palette of icons might be a good solution.

But the idea that icons are a universal good for UIs is flat out false. Folk invented these word-thingies for a reason ;-)

So - to answer your question - a reasonable number of icons is the minimum necessary to effectively help the person using the system.

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I've actually read that icons for product categories are not a good UX choice if not accompanied by text - different groups assign different meaning to them.

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I think there are plenty of studies that can show how many items people can keep in mind, but all that is short-term memory and depends on how well people can chunk information.

For your question, however, I don't believe there is a definite answer. As with all things in UX, it depends on your user: are all 2000-4000 icons exposed to all your users, or are certain icons only applicable to some of your users? (I really do hope it is the latter).

2000-4000 icons of course is excessive, unless you are dealing with subsets created for specific use-cases where there's a different user group. I would split this number into how many different icons one user group has to deal with. Then it has more meaning.

A screen may seem very daunting, when full of indicators and icons, but it all depends on the context and the expertise of the user. When you need to create views for complex situations, where your users needs to have good overview of all things happening, it is often not possible to always show text. But let's make one thing clear: 1 user can not possibly remember 2-4k icons for 1 UI. It would be like having to learn another language.

If your case is indeed with subsets of users (and thus subset of icons), then start by listing all different states and indicators that one such users needs to keep overview with. Why they need it (are things combinable?) and then decide if you need to keep such a status-indicator, or if you can change it because you may merge it etc. Details can always be provided in detailed views.

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