Probably time to rethink our icons

By reeset / On / In General Computing

One of my boys has really been on a bit of a writing jag lately.  I’m guessing that it’s because I write a lot for my job  (and his mom writes a lot as well) and they have a lot of stories that they’d like to tell.  Well, my youngest had asked me to setup the computer so that he could type a story there.  So, I fired up Word and let him have at it.  About an hour later, he came over and asked me how he could save his work.  Without thinking, I told him to click on the little disk picture in the upper left hand corner.  At which point, he looked at me like I had two heads because he’s never seen a disk.

My first reaction was to chuckle a little bit and then show him where the button was.  But, as I’m sitting here looking at MarcEdit, and thinking about the icon palette that I use in my own applications, it got me thinking.  So I started opening up applications on my computer and looked at how applications represent the “save” action.  Nearly universally, the save icon is still represented by some iteration of a disk (on my windows and linux systems) (I should note, MarcEdit uses a folder, with an arrow pointing downwards save).  Talking to my boys (hardly a representative sampling), I started asking about other icons on the palette, and one of the things that strikes me is that many of the graphical representations that we still use to represent actions are relics of a bygone technical past.  My oldest son knew which icon was used for saving, but the image was meaningless to him.  He’d learned how to save because someone had taught him which image to push. In fact, I think the idea of having “disks” sounded somewhat cool, until I told him that the disks were about the size of his little brother’s hand and didn’t have enough space to save his powerpoint to it.  At that point, we all agreed that his 4 GB jump drive was much better.   But to get back to my point, it was interesting that the save icons wasn’t something that he knew intuitively, and certainly isn’t something my youngest son knew intuitively.

This does bring up a question.  Technology is changing and if we are developing interfaces so that they can be used intuitively by our users, which users become our baseline when doing interface development?  Let’s use the save button as an example.  If we created a save button today, it would likely look much different, but would today’s users intuitively understand what it was?  My guess, no (actually, it’s not a guess, when I changed the save button in MarcEdit, it was quite confusing for a number of people).  So, an image of a nearly extinct technology remains the mainstream representation for how we “save” content within most applications.

But this isn’t just an application design question.  Libraries perpetuate these kinds of relic technologies as well.  A great example, in my mind is the ILS.  While this isn’t universally true, the ILS is essentially an electronic representation of a card catalog.  Users come to the library and generally can find things in the ILS, but really, how many would consider their ILS to be intuitive?  How many libraries have classes, online tutorials, etc. to teach users how to find things efficiently in their ILS?  I’m sure most still do.  We have these classes because we have to.  Our ILSs simply don’t work logically when considering current search technology.   And why should they, they were build to be electronic card catalogs, not search engines (or even product engines like amazon) that people use today.  These tools work by building transparent connections to other related options.  ILSs work by building connections through subject headings, or as I heard someone in the library say, by using, “what the hell’s a subject heading”.  Smile

Of course, changing things is easier said that done.  We have large groups of legacy users that would be just as confused if today’s interfaces were actually created to be more intuitive (i.e., were more representative of today’s technology).  [I think this is the same thing we say about why we still use MARC]  So, we have two pain points.  One is for new users that won’t understand today’s interfaces because they lack the institutional memory required to understand what they mean, and legacy users that are currently writing and designing the interfaces and tools in use today.  Guess who wins. 

I’ve got to believe that there is a way around this tension point between legacy users with institutional memory and new users looking for new intuitive interfaces.  Do we develop multiple interfaces (classic and contemporary) or maybe do something different all together.  I’m really not sure, but as I think about how I do my own coding and consider the projects that I’m working on – this is one of those things that I’m going to start thinking about.  We talk about taking bias out of the research process…well, this institutional memory represents its own type of bias that essentially poisons the design process.  I think one of my new years resolutions will be working on ways to eliminate this type of bias as I consider my own interface design projects.


2 thoughts on “Probably time to rethink our icons

  1. I noticed this quite recently myself. Then I saw a great image on Tumblr which showed a photo of a floppy disc with this text: “Kids today don’t even know what this is. WRONG! It is a save button!”

    So while younger kids may not know what a floppy was, they recognize that it is currently the universal icon for save.

    1. But this is actually what I’m talking about. I don’t think it is as universally recognized as people would like to believe, but more of a learned behavior that becomes less meaningful as time passes.