I'm looking for some research that tries to establish how quickly a user will recognize or understand symbols / icons that they:

  1. Have Seen Before
  2. Have Not Seen Before

Obviously a user will be able to understand the icon that they have seen before more quickly than the one they haven't, but would adding labels help?

So then the question becomes which is quicker:

  1. Standard icons that they have seen before but without labeling ( Save floppy disc, printer )?
  2. Icons that they haven't seen before but with labeling? ( Heart or Star with the label "Favorite" beneath )

3 Answers 3


It's preferred to provide icon with label

As summarized in the article about icon usability

A user’s understanding of an icon is based on previous experience. Due to the absence of a standard usage for most icons, text labels are necessary to communicate the meaning and reduce ambiguity.

Tips for designing with icons have also been outlined in the article:

Keep the design simple and schematic. Reduce the amount of graphic details by focusing on the basic characteristics of the object rather than creating a highly realistic image in order to speed up recognition. (Intricate details are difficult to distinguish at smaller sizes.)

Use the 5-second rule: if it takes you more than 5 seconds to think of an appropriate icon for something, it is unlikely that an icon can effectively communicate that meaning.

Test the icons for recognizability: ask people what they expect the icons to stand for.

Test the icons for memorability: ask a repeat set of users if they can remember the icon’s meaning after being told what it represented a couple weeks earlier.


There's no such thing as recognizing a symbol that has never been encountered before. It will just be an abstract shape with no meaning - like what words look like to someone that doesn't know how to read.

Shapes become symbols over repeated exposure and with added meaning. We've seen heart or star shapes many times, and they usually mean 'like' or 'love', or 'good job' or 'star'. Shapes like this are universally recognized for many people but the exact meaning will be slightly different depend on the person and the context and it will be difficult to modify their meaning for most people. For example, no matter how hard you try, you will unlikely be able to make people think "poison" just by looking at a heart shape.

A shape that has never been encountered will need a label because it needs to be infused with a meaning. For instance, no one knew that the Nike symbol meant Nike without repeated exposure to both the symbol and the word. In this case the new shape referred to a new concept, so neither meant anything to anyone without repeated exposure.

A previously encountered shape that is getting an additional meaning added to it, like cloud shapes before cloud-computing, will be easily recognized but the new meaning might be forgotten unless it's reinforced over time. And if the new idea is too different from the more commonly held concept, it will probably be rejected.

To answer your question, an icon that has been in use before with a label will be more easily understood than an icon that has in use before with no label and a new shape with a new concept, and all three will be recognized over a shape that has never been used before at all and has no label to define it.

  • I don't agree with this. An icon can be understood even if it's never been seen before via the context it's being used in. Context can infuse an icon with meaning just as a label can (though one can certainly argue that it's easier to do with a label).
    – DA01
    Commented Sep 2, 2015 at 22:34
  • What do you specifically disagree with?
    – user70848
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 19:41
  • I disagree with the first paragraph. Icons can gain meaning from he context they're being used in.
    – DA01
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 20:45
  • Yes, that is true. That is why I said, "recognize" not "understand". It is definitely possible to understand a brand new symbol that has never been seen and it's possible to know its meaning. That is a case of just acknowledging its existence, which is one definition of recognize but requires drawing on previous knowledge. But without that context and knowledge, it is not possible to recognize a new symbol. In that case, it would simply be learning something new.
    – user70848
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 21:29

I think you'll be hard pressed to find a single study that addresses recognition time of icon/icon-label for icons that are both familiar and not familiar. A users familiarity with an icon is based on previous exposure. To determine familiarity one would have to show the icon and ask the user, and at that point the user would then be familiar.

A user’s understanding of an icon is based on previous experience. Due to the absence of a standard usage for most icons, text labels are necessary to communicate the meaning and reduce ambiguity.


That said the following study addresses response times to icons with novice web users.

In 1999 Susan Weidenbeck did an did a study with novice web users on the usability of application icons. The result was the icon-label combination higher accuracy and lower response times than the icon only counterparts. You can read the details of the study here:


In addition, a 2013 study on icon-only styles by Alla Kholmatova concluded no significant difference in recognition for icons that were filled vs line icons. The study was on a set of 6 users.


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