Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Icon design

NPR’s Science Friday website has a new look. I was drawn to the use of icons on their webpage.  Topics such as planet, space, brain, biology, nature, and mathematics have been very creatively represented using icons.

Using icons in design have numerous advantages:
  • Icons can contribute to the simplicity of the design by reducing the amount of text and clutter.
  •  Icons can be comprehensible to a wider population irrespective of language barriers, including children.
  • Icons can promote faster recognition. Remember a picture is worth a 1000 words!

Though icons offer several advantages, these have the potential to create a lot of user confusion if not designed correctly. Poor icon design on displays can also lead to user errors in safety-critical domains.

What are some of the techniques that can be used to ensure that icons represent what the designer intends to convey to the end user?

·      Phrase generation procedure:  In this technique, icons are presented to test users one after the other. Icon comprehension is measured by asking users to generate as many phrases as possible that come to mind when they see an icon. The first phrase generated from the series of phrases would indicate the concept that was most readily activated when a participant sees an icon. This is an important factor to consider when designing for safety-critical domains, where users are expected to react quickly to events. Icon comprehension scores would help designers to infer the intuitiveness of the icon design. Details on this technique can be found here.

·     Usability testing: In this technique, icons are presented to users as part of a design prototype that is being evaluated. Test scenarios should be designed that would require users to interact with these icons. Objective measures such as scenario completion time, number of clicks, and number of deviations from the optimal navigational path can be used to determine the intuitiveness of the icons. This can also be supplemented with a think-aloud protocol that would require users to verbalize the intentions behind their actions. While the think-aloud technique offers the advantage of getting to know users’ thoughts and expectations, this has the potential to interfere with the objective data (i.e., scenario completion time). Retrospective think-aloud may be more effective, wherein users are asked to explain their actions after completing a scenario. 

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