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When adding an icon to a button labelled 'Download free ebook' one can use an icon to represent either the action (download) or the subject matter (PDF). Which is better? Why? (And is the answer impacted by context or intended user?)

  • Icons are used to imply both action and label and more. Here is an example of all the ways icons are used > fortawesome.github.io/Font-Awesome/examples Could you highlight what exactly you are looking for? Any specific design decision you need to take around this? – Vjay Jan 8 '16 at 6:29
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    Not trying to be harsh, but StackExchange isn't meant to ask for opinions. You can ask these type of questions on forums. StackExchange is meant to answer questions that aren't opinion-based. – Daan Jan 8 '16 at 10:09
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Imagine you have designed a music player and the play button icon represented the format of the song that will play when you click it, i.e. instead of the "play arrow" it had an icon representing the "mp3" format of the file. Would that make sense?

If a button triggers an action then it usually makes much more sense to have the icon reflect the action. The information about the item being acted upon can be indicated elsewhere (in the music player example it would be in the playlist, or a "currently playing" display of some sort).

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    While I agree with your answer I'd say it's not true in this case. Your example 'Play' is about something that the user simply doesn't care about. The user just wants to press the button and have music, which will happen. But with downloading the user wants to download it and see if it is of any use for him/her. It could be any file (maybe a file he can't open). So I think the 'Download' button should contain the text "Download" and an icon of the document type, which is PDF in this case. – Daan Jan 8 '16 at 15:26
  • @DaanHeskes It is much better to have a big green download arrow as an icon, and then "filename.pdf" (or even just "PDF"). A user is on the page looking for a download, they are going to scan (users don't read, they scan) for any download buttons before narrowing down to possible formats. – Franchesca Jan 8 '16 at 15:52
  • Seems arguably, which is probably why they're both used. When your button calls to action I think they will see "Download" and the PDF icon, which is a better experience for the user than only having a "Download" button with an arrow icon. Some people might want to make sure they're about to download a PDF document when downloading an ebook. So for the user experience I'd say it's better to show the document type in OP's case. But the right answer seems kinda opinion-wise. – Daan Jan 9 '16 at 14:19
  • @DaanHeskes If you think that I suggested not having information displayed about the file format you should go back and read what I actually wrote. – Franchesca Jan 11 '16 at 8:08
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    I didn't say that you don't have that suggested, but I'm saying that your answer is about something that you can't compare. A music play/stop button is totally different than a download button. For me a 'Download PDF' with a PDF file is way clearer than a "Download", "filename.pdf" and the big green arrow icon. I'm talking about a button like this. – Daan Jan 11 '16 at 9:01

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