I was wondering if there exist any user research regarding using a more generic icon set (e.g. "Create", "Delete" icons) compared to utilizing specific icons for each object ("Create X", "Delete X" icons)?

My current worry with the last alternative would e.g. be:

  • Dealing with a lot of objects (which is the case with the applications I'm working with, quite complex information hierarchy) the iconset would grow exponentially
  • Might be hard to keep track which icons to use in which context when implementing it...

However I don't know there are any other specific pros/cons related to the two options, or even better if there exist any user research around this topic. Input is most appreciated!

  • I find the question a bit unclear, could you please explain a bit more what do you mean? Are you worried about the number of icons as of number of files or as too many concepts for the user? What kind of icons/actions do you have in mind? Do you have any example for the two options that you mention?
    – PatomaS
    Apr 3, 2014 at 7:57
  • Mainly I'm worried about ensuring implementation consistency between a large set of user interfaces there if we e.g. have a set of icons that are only bound to a specific object type.Let's say you have three objects: X, Y and Z. Do you create a unique "delete X", "delete Y" and "delete Z" icon or do you have one common "delete" icon for all objects (X, Y, Z in this case)? Apr 3, 2014 at 12:24

2 Answers 2


Standard icons for standard actions like create, delete, search, will leverage the user's existing knowledge. Creating icons for custom objects in a UI can get tricky. If you are managing a very large number you may overwhelm the user with too many similar but "slightly different" icons. If an icon doesn't leverage the user's existing knowledge then it adds to the learning curve. The only use case where such a learning curve is justified would be in something like a graphics / video editing package encompassing a vast amount of functionality in a small space.

In general I would advise the following when using icons:

  • Make sure icons leverage user's existing knowledge
  • Ensure that each icon is distinct enough not to be confused for another icon.

Since you have a complex information hierarchy, I would suggest breaking it up into a manageable number of general areas / categories and assigning a custom icon to each area rather than each object. The purpose of icons is to speed the user in finding what they are looking for on the screen, so in your case they will have an easier time looking for category icon + reading object name than they would looking for object icon or object name on their own. (You could even programatically write the object name into the icon if you wanted to get fancy.) Annotating the custom icons with generic action icons won't add anything to your learning curve.

  • Thanks, I really like this answer. Do you have any user research findings related to this area? E.g. user research made, usability testing done in this area, or similar data... :) Apr 3, 2014 at 12:25

I don't think there are any studies about this specific subject, although if I'm wrong, I'm sure somebody will point us to those studies.

Considering standard actions, like delete, there is no overhead for the user regarding additional words to describe the relation between the action and the object over which the action is going to happen.

It's about the same to read "delete" than "delete X" when X is an object clearly identifiable on the interface. In any case, "delete X" can be more precise and long enough to make the idea clear without confusing or difficulting.

On the other hand, if the object is not clearly present on screen, the extra word on the button may confuse since it may be referring to something that is not there.

If loading time is relevant, using only one button per action would be better since the object would be already cached. Of course this applies to cacheable objects; we don't know what is your application or work.

In any case, if you opt for the more precise option, remember to style all of the buttons the same way, otherwise, you are introducing variations and that could cause confusion depending on the circumstances. If you opt for one button, you may be saving developing time, loading time and ensuring consistency through your work.

Conclusion, it's up to you. both options are good as far as I can tell.

  • Thanks, appreciate this answer. Do you have any user research findings related to this area? E.g. user research made, usability testing done in this area, or similar data... :) Apr 29, 2014 at 11:24

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