User interfaces and accessibility are some of the most important aspect of an application. It can have a million features, it can do a thousand things once, but if it doesn’t look quite right then it will be a disaster. Take Linux for example. This open source (free) operating system has been around for quite a while, and it has been very appreciated for its stability and speed. However, in its earlier days it lacked a user interface, which made it very unattractive to the general public. While a few years back Linux was used only by system administrator and computer freaks, Microsoft’s Windows was all over the place, pumped up by its friendly user interface, even though it had a lot of bugs and was very unstable. Today’s things are quite different. People have learned from their mistakes and now, most operating systems, including Linux, use a graphical interface and are very user-friendly – things that in the past you could do by writing lines and lines of instructions, you can now do with a few clicks. This major improvement has brought in a whole new class of users, and the popularity of this operating system has increased considerably.
This is why the user interface matters a lot to the average computer user, and icons are one of the most important issues at matter. But why use icons and not plain text? Well, icons are visual mnemonics, that is, they are easier to remember. We see an icon a few times (or maybe once) and we “learn” it, and afterwords we associate the image with a certain action. The same thing happens with text, but it’s a lot faster to “read” an icon than it is to read a text, which makes icons a lot more recommended. Furthermore, adding icons to the important components of your application will sometimes save you from the frustration of answering the users who are not very familiar with the application and have trouble finding out how to use a certain feature. For example adding a question mark icon next inside the help button will make it easier for users to figure out where they can get help.
Today’s developers know that users will learn how to use a certain application a lot faster if its interface looks like the applications they are already familiar with. Take for example a Mac: can you see how all applications look pretty much the same? So it’s really easy to start using new applications, and you don’t have to read the manual to see what each button does, because most likely you’ll figure out that on your own. But there are two sides to this: if all applications look more or less the same, where is the uniqueness? Then again, if the application is totally unique, users might find it difficult to get acquainted with. So the best way to go is to use an interface that combines both these rules – not an “average” looking user interface, but also not a totally unique one. It’s easy to get stuck with this idea, but this is where icons come in.