The Google Chrome "New tab" button is not labeled (see the top image). It contains no icon and no text (besides hovertext). There seems to be extensive discussion on using text vs. icon, but I can't seem to find anything on the precedent or utility of avoiding both icons and words for a label. This seems like it could get confusing quick, both for documents that refer to the button, and for ambiguity of such a button. It takes more words to describe steps to interact with an ambiguous button as opposed to a unique button. Should icon-free and text-free buttons be avoided?
Yes, they should be avoided.
Granted, there's a giant difference between the most used browser in the world and whichever thing we can do, but EVEN THEN, it should be avoided. Keep in mind that Google's UX issues has been discussed extensively and I'm sure you'll find many UX professionals doubting their decisions.
Anyways, this is a very old issue, you can see the bug tracker here (started in 2011) and how they closed this as a "non bug" and closed with
Comment 465 by firstname.lastname@example.org, Mar 29, 2012 Labels: Restrict-AddIssueComment-Commit Status: WontFix
Per discussions with alcor, I'm closing this bug.
We've been monitoring the feedback here and don't intend to revert this change. However, we do think the button needs a tooltip.
Also, in a Google Chrome Help Forum discussion, this is the answer by a Google employee (bold text added by me):
Thanks for taking the time to give us your thoughts about the plus sign in the new tab button.
We made this change in the spirit of a cleaner and neater user interface (UI), which has been one of Chrome's guiding principles. However, we understand that this may cause some visibility issues on certain themes, and we'll look into that.
As always, we appreciate your feedback, and we'll keep it in mind as we continually evolve our product.
In general, I would agree that icon-free and text-free buttons should be avoided. You list some very good reasons. There are certain circumstances where exceptions can be made. Chrome's "New tab" button is an example of such an exception.
The "create a new tab" action in a web browser is so common that it is second nature to most users. The button's placement and shape make it an "affordance." That is, the purpose and function of Chrome's "New tab" button can be readily implied without text or an icon. Such affordances are rare and this special case exists for one of the most common interactions in one of the most well-understood and commonly used user interfaces: creating a new tab in a web browser.
I would add that even if the Chrome "New tab" button is misunderstood and clicked by mistake, the function is immediately clear and reconciling from the mistake is as simple as closing a tab. It is safe. It is discoverable.
Obviously, most of the buttons we create do not fit into this special niche. Before you ever consider making a button without icons or text, it might behoove you to ask "Could I expect a vast majority of the users of this GUI to click this button without hesitation or cognitive processing? If they click the button by mistake, might any frustration or confusion arise?"