Developer

Do you use text, icons, or both to display input?

Take this poll and let us know whether you use text, icons, or both to display input.

When applications were written for character-only displays, if an application had a menu, it was all in text. Some applications did not even have command bars, toolboxes, or menus -- keystroke combinations controlled everything.

As the GUI rose to prominence, developers could use icons as a "pictographic language" for input. However, icons are not universally understood, and sometimes it's difficult to design an icon that conveys its purpose very well. Of course, users often do not read text, and it takes up more space.

Some GUIs use icons and text to indicate function; and textual input widgets seem to be making a comeback, thanks to the Web application boom. Windows, for example, is introducing more and more standard widgets to allow large chunks of clickable text; this is a radical departure from the one or two word buttons of the past.

J.Ja

Disclosure of Justin's industry affiliations: Justin James has a working arrangement with Microsoft to write an article for MSDN Magazine. He also has a contract with Spiceworks to write product buying guides.

About

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

9 comments
Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

as long as they are the right ones. :D I don't actually see icons as that much more ambiguous than text, or less for that matter. They simply take up less real estate. Unfortunately some used the space advantage to make GUIS much much busier, which required more icons, which meant more potential ambiguities, a greater learning curve and sometimes the help manual to be open so you could decipher the UI. :( If an icon helps use it. If it's a printer then you can safely miss a caption of Print off it. I' ve been using clickable labels for ages.....

JanP.
JanP.

I totally agree, that more space -> more icons is a bad way to "enhance" GUIs. Please let me mention, that a designer should take into consideration, that even perfect symbols could change over time. The symbol of a floppy disc is a wonderful--and common used--symbol for "save" since decades. But who has a floppy drive left in his today's PC? Also the style of printers is changing--thankfully not that dramatic.

Justin James
Justin James

... I just mentioned the floppy disc save icon to someone else last week. :) J.Ja

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've seen applications that used only icons without so much as tooltip, and the images can be confusing. What does a pair of handcuffs mean: defendants, police, or p0rn? I advise using a combination of text and icons, because once you know what it means, the image is faster to locate visually -- but until then, you don't want trial and error to be your mechanism of locating the function.

seanferd
seanferd

Or when the icon is rendered so poorly that you don't even know what you're looking at? The handcuffs icon should be there to call the GUI police. edit: add "icon"

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

No point in expecting context to work for you either, if the icon in question is accepted as generally meaning something else, when in another context.

Justin James
Justin James

Do you prefer text, icons, or both? What are you thoughts in terms of usability and accessibility? J.Ja

TJ111
TJ111

I think it depends on the situation. For example, controls like Bold, Italic, Underline, Refresh, etc can all be easily recognized as just an icon (with a tooltip of course) without any major usability concerns. I wouldn't rule out having an option though to enable / disable text, icons, etc (WebDeveloper toolbar as a good example here). However some icons just don't do a good job of getting their purpose across from the icon alone. A good example of this is a project I'm active in, which is MooEditable [http://mindplay.dk/mooeditable/ ]. The icons towards the end of the toolbar require you to hover them with your mouse in order to understand what they do. I will probably implement some changes to it when I get time, but in the mean time don't mind pointing out faults where they exist. Essentially, since that was a poorly written reply, I think the best approach is a combination of text and icons. Use icons alone where they are easily understood, and use text + icons where its not. Also, options to toggle text / icons / both is always a plus.

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