Digital Wayfinding through Iconography
How can designers use iconography to enhance user experience?
“Iconography is a visual language used to represent features, functionality, or content. Icons are meant to be simple, visual elements that are recognized and understood immediately.”
Through metaphorical association, an icon can communicate a concept or idea that facilitates action. Many of these icons have grown to become universal. What does it mean when you are engaging with a user interface, and you see a small garbage can? By clicking that garbage can, you can probably delete something.
When is it appropriate to use iconography?
I have found that the transition to mobile being the primary platform for interface and experience design, icons have become a great solution for the lack of space on smaller screens.
A set of standard icons that coincide with the functionality of your application can be created, as long as there is no confusion or ambiguity for the user. Ensure to engage users in your design iteration of icons — if your user momentarily hesitates to figure out the purpose of your icon, don’t use it.
How much is too much?
If icons are used as an extra layer of visual appeal, but lack functionality, they can dilute the user experience. The purpose of an icon is to grab the user’s attention and peak visual interest and experience. Digital wayfinding within an application is key to user experience, so use icons sparingly and when you do, incorporate them authentically.
Less is more with iconography. The set of icons that you develop for your application are meant to have consistent visual elements and bolster the visual language or brand that you are trying to communicate to the user. If you are choosing to go down the road of customized icons, ensure that all functional elements are designed as a set or family.
“Consistency in iconography removes ambiguity and helps users distinguish an icon they can interact with, from a graphic or background image with which they cannot.”
What about accessibility?
Within the WCAG2 chapter on sensory characteristics, instructions must be provided for understanding and operating content, ensuring that they do not rely solely on sensory characteristics of components such as shape, size, visual location, orientation, or sound.
What does this mean for iconography? Add a label with your icon.
Labels have long been a tension with UX and UI designers; however, I think it’s important to remember that we are always trying to achieve a personalized and pleasant experience for all users. The solution? An interesting concept known as progressive reduction: As a user interacts with an application more and more, it becomes increasingly familiar with its UI. As this familiarity increases, signposting and the need for labels throughout the interface can decrease.
Creating icons that are accessible for everyone means that all users can reap the benefits of the experience that you have built. Those with low vision, colour-blindness, or even users who have come across an ambiguous icon are able to verify the symbol and remain engaged within your application in a meaningful way.