Design and Innovation Daily

Comments on the usability of icons

Posted in Uncategorized by Dan on August 20, 2013

I wanted to jot down a few thoughts on this article about “hollow icons”, since a couple people asked me for a little more explanation. I don’t have an active blog (and doesn’t have a good comment feature), so this was a convenient place to do it.

The article discussed how the visual design of a UI icon could affect the cognitive load involved in reading, or visually processing, the icon. I’m skeptical of the article’s claims, so I’ll explain why, without any disrespect for the author or his interest in investigating the issue. Actually, I think there are serious usability problems with some current app design trends, especially with “the lead that iOS7 created precedent with,” so I share the interest in critiquing these trends and finding better solutions.

On to the article.

First, although I’m far from an expert on visual processing, I’m not sure what evidence there is for the idea that the brain is “tracing” the edges of the icons, or that the hollow icon has to be traced twice. I would agree that the hollow icons present more visual noise than the solid ones, but I’m not sure to what extent this affects efficiency (the time it takes to process the icon) as opposed to mere aesthetics (i.e. whether or not the user finds the interface pleasing to look at). If anything, visual noise could interfere with the scannability of the overall interface, which is certainly a usability concern, but that’s a slightly different discussion.

Second, the cited paper on word recognition, if I understand it correctly, does not actually support the idea that users read the “shapes” of words instead of the letters. That aside, icons and words are very different things, and I’m not sure that a model of word recognition can be directly translated to icons.

Third, I don’t think icons are comparable to letters, either. There may be a little overhead in learning a new icon (regardless of its design style), but once the icon is learned, we’re just talking about the user’s ability to recognize the icon. And in many cases, the user shouldn’t even need to learn anything because icons can (should) be pictographic–a trash can icon is self-explanatory. The fact that there are only 26 letters and a much larger number of icons doesn’t mean it takes longer to recognize an icon, provided that the user is able to recognize it. On the other hand, it is a problem when there isn’t enough differentiation between icons, and the user can’t tell the difference between two very similar icons. Another major problem is when icons are cryptic: the user doesn’t recognize the pictogram because it’s too abstract, or the user does recognize the pictogram but doesn’t understand its meaning. If there’s a risk that users won’t understand or learn an icon, especially when designing for novice users, and for infrequent users who won’t even have the opportunity to learn over the course of multiple interactions, the designer should use a label instead of or in addition to the icon. (And if the designer is in doubt, test it, and if you can’t test it, just add the label.)

Finally, the assumption behind the whole discussion is that cognitive load matters. Except in the cases described above (e.g. stopping my task to try and make sense of a cryptic icon is definitely a huge cognitive load), if one icon takes a few extra milliseconds for the eye to process, I don’t think that’s a problem. Efficiency can be important when reading text, but we don’t read icons the way we read text, and I’d argue that users do not need to be able to be efficient when recognizing icons. I can think of an exception, however, and that’s when a user needs to recognize an icon in a toolbar containing a large number of icons. In this case, one does need to be able to scan the toolbar and identify the right button without interrupting one’s primary task. I think it would be a great idea to do an experiment (assuming someone thinks it’s worthwhile) on whether or not hollow icons interfere with the usability of a toolbar. That said, it’s still more important to (a) remove visual noise, (b) ensure that icons are well-differentiated from each other, and (c) ensure that icons are meaningful and learn-able (I’d say intuitive, but I don’t think that word should ever be used, which you can ask me about another day).

Once again, I think there’s a need for some serious discussion in the UI design world about the relationships between visual design and usability–usability continually falls by the wayside when new trends emerge, so this topic of hollow icons was a great question to raise. And I completely agree that one should not make design decisions based on trends or to “fit in” with the platform unless, of course, the design goal is explicitly to be trendy. On a related topic, I haven’t had a chance to look through this in detail yet, but it sounds like Jakob Nielsen is critiquing the “flat design” trend, which certainly encourages our line of thought.

The films of Charles and Ray Eames

Posted in art, culture, designers, philosophy by Dan on March 8, 2010

Michael Neault wrote a wonderful piece on the films of Charles and Ray Eames, a prolific pair of designers who made a profound impact on design during the 20th century. Noting that the Eames’ films receive less attention than their work in industrial design, architecture, photography, and other areas, Neault discusses the unique artistry of their films, the role of the films within the history of design, and the meaning of the films in terms of the Eames’ philosophy of design.

Carl DiSalvo recently commented on the Eames’ films, looking at the films as “meditations on objects.” Along with that, he posted the film “Lounge Chair Assembly” (1956).

Another film available online is this advertisement for the Polaroid SX-70, the landmark instant camera. The film is a beautiful example of the Eames’ style. Also worth noting is the way the film reflects a systems view of the camera, moving between user and manufacturer, presenting the camera as a technological object, as a useful object, and as a meaningful part of a user’s life.

More from Interaction10

Posted in culture, interaction design, philosophy, product design, theory, user experience by Dan on February 26, 2010

Picking up on yesterday’s topic, here are a few more highlights from Interaction10, the recent conference on interaction design. Talks at the conference presented an interesting mix of theoretical and practical insights into design (and not just interaction design).

Yesterday, I pointed to summaries of the talks from the first day of the conference. Johnny Holland Magazine also published summaries from the second and third days (their server was down last time I checked, so here are Google’s cached versions of the articles from day 2 and day 3).

On day 2, Ezio Manzini discussed the role of digital platforms in the economies and communities of the future. Christropher Fahey gave an even more fascinating (and perhaps bold) presentation about the humanization of technology, which implies that technology will become more human-like without replacing or replicating humans; in addition to the overview in the above article, take a look at his slides. From day 3, Dan Hill’s talk is interesting because he brings the subject of urban design into the context of interaction design—similar concepts applied to very different time frames.

Since I wrote yesterday’s post, I also found the slides from Nathan Shedroff’s talk about the forms and roles of meaning in experiences and designed experiences. The slides can be downloaded from Shedroff’s website.

I highly recommend Nicolas Nova’s reflections on the conference. He pieced together many of the theoretical elements of the talks and made an interesting comparison of the design models that appeared throughout the conference.

Sarah Mitchell traced a few of the core themes from the talks and posted photos of her notes.

Finally, Dave Malouf, interaction design professor at SCAD, wrote a compelling (if cryptic) piece about the importance of social responsibility and even activism in interaction design.

Lessons from the Interaction10 conference

Posted in interaction design, philosophy, product design, theory, user experience, web design by Dan on February 25, 2010

Around three weeks ago, the Interaction Design Association held its annual conference, Interaction10. I finally got around to reading some of the attendees’ recaps and notes from the conference. I’ll post a couple highlights today, and more tomorrow.

Johnny Holland Magazine published daily synopses of the conference sessions. Two notable talks were those given by Nicolas Nova and Jon Kolko, both towards the end of the article: “Live at Interaction’10: day 1.”

To go along with that, Nova’s slides can be viewed here; I think the compelling title speaks for itself: “Design and Designed Failures: From Observing Failures to Provoking Them.”

Jon Kolko followed up on the conference in Design Mind: “An Emerging Divide: Some Thoughts from the IxDA 2010 Conference.”

Theatre machine redux

Posted in architecture, philosophy by Dan on February 22, 2010

It’s time for architecture to do things again, not just represent things.

Back in November, I wrote about the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in Dallas, a 12-story, reconfigurable building, and I posted a TED talk with its architect, Joshua Prince-Ramus. Prince-Ramus recently gave another talk in which he discussed the same project in more detail. He makes it clear that the theatre, though fancy, was designed purely to meet the functional and artistic needs of the theatre company. The talk addresses the same issue that appears in graphic design and industrial design: the problematic view that the purpose of design is simply to make things pretty.

Joshua Prince-Ramus: Building a theater that remakes itself

Michael Bierut’s wisdom and advice about clients

Posted in philosophy by Dan on February 5, 2010

For your weekend viewing, Michael Bierut from Pentagram (the same Pentagram that did the What Type Are You? quiz and the same Bierut I linked to in the blog’s first week), recently gave a talk at CreativeMornings. Bierut talked about clients: how clients affect your work and your happiness, good clients and bad clients, and lots of advice about choosing and dealing with clients.

Michael Bierut at CreativeMornings

The traffic guru; UIs that lie

Posted in architecture, interaction design, psychology, theory by Dan on February 4, 2010

The Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman had surprising insights into the effects of warning signs, traffic lights, and other elements of traffic safety infrastructure. His most famous idea, which hasn’t made it into American traffic engineering but has been influential in Europe, was that removing most of that infrastructure could make streets safer. By redesigning aspects of a certain town to make it seem more “villagelike,” he was able to change drivers’ perception of the environment and encourage them to drive more slowly and carefully without the influence of signs and other interventions. This article by Tom Vanderbilt explains more about Monderman’s approach and how the traffic insfrastructure affects individuals’ behavior in unexpected ways: “The Traffic Guru.”

This is a remarkable phenomenon. It shows that the framework for the usage of the system, which is, in this case, a traffic system, informs the way people use the system—but not through constraints, not through direct communication, and not through affordances. Users’ perception of the environment changes how they think they ought to drive, even though the surrounding town might have nothing to do with their intention to travel to a destination.

David Lindes writes about a similar pattern in a completely different environment. In the process of redesigning an application for a certain business process, he set out to learn about the clients’ workflow and found out that it was excessively complicated. This reflected a problem with the client’s old application. It wasn’t just that the old program was a bad match for the process, but that the program’s complicated workflow had actually changed the way the client understood the process. Even though the original business process was not to be driven by software, “user interfaces are one of the principal sources from which a person learns about his or her work.” The implication for our own design process is huge. “UIs that lie & the users who believe them.”

Editing as curation; what’s happening with DIDaily

Posted in information, philosophy by Dan on February 3, 2010

Liz Danzico wrote a cool article for Interactions looking at editing as a form of curation. As the amount of information that individuals regularly process has increased, the role of editing has spread increasingly toward individuals and consumers; we edit and curate for ourselves as we deal with large amounts of email and RSS feeds, and for others in the context of blogging and Twitter.

The Art of Editing: The New Old Skills for a Curated Life

Her article resonates with me as a blogger who (currently) focuses on filtering lots of content and sharing articles based on a certain editorial intent: to follow a theme and to provide value that goes both beyond and deeper than the daily buzz that you’d hear about even if you didn’t read my blog. That’s one reason why I intend not even to mention the iPad here. (Oops.) Of course, I’m not an editor in the strictest sense; I do inject my opinion into the blog once in a while.

I’ve discovered that curation is a difficult job: I’ve accumulated a massive collection of RSS subscriptions since I started reading this stuff eight months ago. I filter through one to two hundred posts per weekday—I certainly don’t read all of them—but in order to synthesize something each day, I have to read many of them closely, pick only the right items, and put them together with a fitting context and motive.

Unfortunately, I can’t do this every single day. Especially during school, when homework commands most of my waking hours throughout all seven days of the week, I have to forego this practice on many days (which explains the missed days over the past two weeks). As you know, I’m working on getting a system running at (I missed my deadline, but it’s coming soon.) I’ve decided that, although I plan to keep doing the same sort of thing indefinitely, I’m going to drop the “daily” part of this blog when I move over to the new site, at least for while I’m in school.

Meanwhile, some great stuff will be coming your way over the next couple weeks. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, and if you have something interesting for me to post, send it over!

David Airey on letterpress; Decision-Based Design

Posted in culture, graphic design, interaction design, theory by Dan on January 25, 2010

In a post about letterpress (an early printing technique used from the time of Gutenberg up to the beginning of the 20th century), graphic designer David Airey shared a video about Hatch Show Print: a 130-year old letterpress shop which has preserved the old printing techniques as well as the associated design styles for many decades: Hatch Show Print

On a completely unrelated topic, Dan Brown republished a 2005 article in which he describes an unusual approach to software design. Instead of using functional specifications, information architecture, or user personas as the main drivers of the design process, Brown focused on the large and complex set of decisions that users must make while using the software; he treated the software as a system built primarily to support the users’ decision-making: “Decision-Based Design.”

Two months of paper prototyping

Posted in methodology, user interface by Dan on January 22, 2010

Microsoft Office Labs recently released a new add-in: Ribbon Hero is a game that can improve your skills with Microsoft Office. In this interview, software engineer Jonas Helin discusses the development process for Ribbon Hero. His team spent two months designing with paper prototypes before writing a single line of code.

(Found via Steve Portigal and Lost Garden.)

What type[face] are you?

Posted in emotional design, graphic design by Dan on January 20, 2010

As expected, not as much time for reading this week. I did, however, enjoy the entertaining “What type are you?” quiz from the design firm Pentagram. No, it’s not a Facebook quiz—it’s a clever, interactive, four-question quiz presented almost like a digital therapy session. In order to start, the password is “character”. Fitting, because the quiz itself has character; the counselor fidgets while he waits for you to answer each question. See what happens when you make him wait for a while.

“What type are you?”

Escher-inspired typeface; the design of boarding passes

Posted in graphic design by Dan on January 19, 2010

These links have already been around most of the big design blogs, but they’re still pretty cool.

A font inspired partly by the “visual conceit in the work of the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher:” Priori Acute

Tyler Thompson challenges the lazy, low-quality visual design of airline boarding passes; the project has turned into a small movement over the past several weeks: Boarding Pass/FAIL

Steve Krug on the least you can do about usability

Posted in usability, web design by Dan on January 18, 2010

This week I’m going into intense-code-writing-focus mode. It is my self-imposed requirement that, regardless of how complete they are, my website and blog are uploaded and running by Saturday; I better make sure they’re functional and presentable by then.

So, this blog will receive less attention this week. Soon after I get my site running, this blog will move over there, either in its current format or in some new format.

Meanwhile, here’s a talk from the Business of Software 2008 conference by Steve Krug, the author of the essential web usability book Don’t Make Me Think. The talk, as well as the book, is a must-see for anyone who does web or software work, but designers in other areas will learn a lot from what Krug has to say about how users approach and interact with the medium: Steve Krug on the least you can do about usability

TED talks for the weekend

Posted in creativity, methodology, product design, theory, user experience by Dan on January 15, 2010

Ghost in the Pixel: Uday Gajendar’s blog

Posted in philosophy, theory by Dan on January 14, 2010

Only one link for today, because it’s such a good one.

Recently, I linked to a piece by Uday Gajendar about designing for panic. That post, although great on its own, wasn’t a good representation of his blog as a whole. Often, he writes incredibly deep, insightful analyses of design theory and philosophy. He discusses challenging issues (with challenging responses), such as the definition of interaction, how a product conveys meaning, and the role of integrity in design. In this post, he reflects on some of the lessons he learned while he was a grad student at Carnegie Mellon, which include a few approaches to understanding design that are completely unconventional and different from what we read in most other places. Follow the links within the post to read some of his other writing, which is equally challenging and insightful. It’s well worth spending two or three hours reading his old posts.

Ghost in the Pixel: CMU grad seminar diagrams & lessons.

Recommended blogs: Pasta&Vinegar and 52 Weeks of UX

Posted in interaction design, theory, user experience, user research by Dan on January 13, 2010

I was going to post another link from Nicolas Nova’s blog, but then I realized that I’d like to share just about everything he writes, so instead I’m going to recommend that you read his blog in general. From the description of his blog: “I study people’s practices as well as usage of technologies and turn them into insights, ideas, prototypes or recommendations to inform design and foresight. This blog is a selection of the material that I collect, especially in fields such as mobility, urban environments, digital entertainment and new interfaces.” Pasta&Vinegar: mind/tech bazar from outer space.

Another promising blog, which just began last week, will present weekly entries on user experience: 52 Weeks of UX: A discourse on the process of designing for real people.

The future of industrial design; Decisions by Design

Posted in philosophy, product design, theory by Dan on January 12, 2010

Brian Ling posted a cool presentation about the future of industrial design. He outlines the 11 design strategies which he believes will become the most prominent and important over the next decade. Also see a comment from yours truly on the same page. (And, you could actually win an HP laptop by posting a comment, so join the discussion!) I think this is a fascinating topic; the trends he discusses are not just about products themselves, but about the way social, cultural, technological, economic, and environmental forces change over time and influence design. “11 Design Strategies of the Next Decade.”

In another video from The 99 Percent, Ji Lee talks about a personal experiment from 2002 in which he printed stickers of speech bubbles and placed them onto public advertisements in New York. “The masses responded and the project went viral;” people wrote all kinds of jokes and satirical comments onto the speech bubbles, and others eventually imitated the project by creating their own speech bubbles. “Ji Lee: The Transformative Power of Personal Projects.”

Continuing on yesterday’s theme of design thinking, Colin Raney and Ryan Jacoby, business designers at IDEO, recently published an article in Rotman Magazine about using design thinking in the process of decision-making in business. As I see it, the concept of design thinking doesn’t involve anything new with regard to the design process itself, but it’s new in that it’s an abstraction of the problem-solving processed used by designers. Along the same lines of what Roger Martin, Tim Brown, and others have been writing recently, this article provides a good overview of design thinking and how it can be applied in new contexts. “Decisions by Design: Stop Deciding, Start Designing.”

Business strategy, design strategy, and competition robots

Posted in philosophy, product design by Dan on January 11, 2010

A couple cool products were posted on Core77 this week:

Roger Martin, the Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and one of the popular advocates of the “design thinking” movement, wrote a short piece at the Harvard Business Review explaining that, in a good business strategy, “where-to-play and how-to-win choices fit together and reinforce one another.” This is a basic but often-missed principle of business strategy, but its relevance is not limited to business. A solution that is both innovative and effective must implement a carefully chosen method (how to win), while the method must be developed in concert with equally careful choices in users, culture, and physical environment, as well as the problem itself (where to play). “Why Most CEOs Are Bad at Strategy.”

The where-to-play and how-to-play questions are especially important in the design of competition robots—and speaking of which, this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) season began on Saturday with the release of the rules for the game “Breakaway.” High school teams participating in the program each have six and a half intense weeks to analyze the game and then design, build, program, and test a 120-pound robot that will play this game. Among FRC’s many challenges in engineering, problem-solving, and teamwork, the robot design process is interesting because teams must develop the same two elements of their game strategy. At first glance, the game rules seem to tell you “where to play,” leaving teams to decide “how to win.” The best teams, however, will design a strategy that aims for mutual reinforcement between their robot’s functions and operation (how) and considerations of which field structures to interact with, which area of the field to play on, and how to interact with other robots (where).

Watch the three-minute animation describing the game itself and check out the FRC home page for more information.

Ritual in innovation; the story of the ribbon

Posted in culture, methodology, user experience, user interface by Dan on January 8, 2010

Bruce Nussbaum wrote some interesting thoughts on the role of ritual in technology and innovation. “I was once nearly thrown out of a brainstorming session at IDEO and it marked me for life.” His brief post: “The Ritualization of Creation—The Role of Ritual In Innovation.”

For your weekend viewing, here’s an interesting presentation from 2008: Jensen Harris, a user interface designer at Microsoft, talks about the process of developing the ribbon in Microsoft Office 2007. Back when Microsoft began developing the next version of Office in 2003, their team found that, while Office was fairly complete in its range of features, the user interface was insufficient for the software’s complexity: “The user interface was failing our users.” Harris and his team set out to reimagine, redesign, and evaluate the interface.

In the presentation, from the MIX conference in 2008, Harris describes the design process for the ribbon, including some of the team’s iterations, prototypes, and mistakes. Video, audio, and slides from the presentation are available on his blog. Although the video is a bit long, and even though “Microsoft” connotes “boring” for some, watch at least the first 4 minutes to get a taste; it contains valuable insights and design lessons.

Here’s the blog post: The Story of the Ribbon

Marriott rapid-prototypes a hotel lobby

Posted in methodology, user experience, user research by Dan on January 7, 2010

In the process of redesigning Courtyard by Marriot, a project which addressed the hotel chain’s lobbies along with the overall brand and customer experience, the company prototyped an entire hotel lobby with foam core, allowing them to quickly test and iterate on the lobby design. In Mark Hurst’s interview with Brain King, VP and Global Brand Manager for Courtyard, King discusses the user research strategies employed during the project. (Found via Jared Spool.)

Yesterday’s article on Johnny Holland—incidentally, also by Jared Spool—was a bit ironic because I’ve been writing website reviews and recommendations over the past couple weeks. Spool warns of the risks of making recommendations as a designer, suggesting that experimentation is a better way to arrive at decisions about a design. The lesson is also important when we, as designers, give each other feedback; a particular suggestion could be right or wrong, but our feedback is more valuable if we first aim for a better understanding of the problem. “My Recommendation: Stop Making Design Recommendations.”