Friday, September 14, 2007

The Art of Icons: Where more Realism is better and why that's Helpful

Communicating with icons for a good UX ...

User Experience (UX) designers often seek to distill things down to the essentials. Less is more. Minimalist is good. Users want to get in and get things done. We work to make short, concise menu lists, scannable text, streamlined task flows.

But there's a catch. Being "minimalist" and "streamlined" is not always most effective. They are pictures - meant to provide a visual shorthand to users moving through a task. While research indicates that icons are best when initially paired with text to increase recognition and learnability, users experienced with a given set of icons will begin to ignore the text, scanning for and acting from the image alone.

Icons designed with a minimalist spirit are often harder for users to interpret than ones with more detail and more pixels. And it's more than just the number of pixels that matter. Streamlined icons take more energy because users need to mentally recreate the missing information on the way to understanding it. More work spent on interpreting icons means less mental concentration to assign to the real task at hand.

Here's a quick icon test - pull all the cables out of the back of your DVD / Stereo / Satellite and try to set it up again quickly. So what is the best visual approach? Pictures? Line drawings? Stylistic imagery?

Kunnath, Cornell, and Kysilka (2007) offer a study exploring how different visual strategies affect icon effectiveness within a complex, learning task. Participants were exposed to one of three different icon types within a tutorial / follow-up on how to use digital video equipment. The study looked at two aspects of icon use: learnability, and how well the icons facilitated application use.

Within their study, they developed three different kinds of icons
- Abstract drawings
- Line drawings
- Pictures

Abstract icons were drawn from a universally accepted representation of objects and processes (Dreyfuss, 1984). Pictorial icons were pictures of the actual part in the DVCAM supplemented with a vector (arrow) sign for process. The line drawing icons were line drawings of the pictorial versions.

As a secondary question, Kunnath and colleages also wanted to explore whether different icon types provided differential support for individuals with different learning styles (abstract or concrete, based on Kolb's scale). Kunnath and team found overall that line drawings and pictures - what they call concrete icons - supported performance best. Further, they found that this effect was consistent across learning styles."    (Continued via Usability News)    [Usability Resources]


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