Icon Usability and Design Best Practices
Micah helps businesses craft meaningful engagement through branding, illustration, and design.
Imagine yourself driving to work—favorite podcast playing, travel mug in hand, and nothing but clear roads ahead. A cautious driver, you peek down and notice an unfamiliar light glowing on the dashboard.
Something like a mix between a light socket and a bubbling witches cauldron, the little light appears important, but you’re not sure what it means. A glance at the gauges reveals nothing abnormal, and the vehicle seems to be running fine, so you decide to deal with it after work.
Later that evening, your workday done and dinner on the horizon, you approach your vehicle in the office parking lot and — “You’ve gotta be KIDDING ME!”
The front driver’s side tire is flat as a pancake. If only you’d known that the little icon from earlier was a warning from your vehicle’s tire pressure management system, you would have addressed the problem and avoided unnecessary grief.
Icons Must Provide Clarity
The world of physical and digital products is inundated with icons and for good reason: Images convey meaning with a speed unmatched by words. In fact, MIT neuroscientists have found that the human brain can process an image in as little as 13 milliseconds.
Unfortunately, there are times when the icons we encounter are poorly crafted, leaving us perplexed and frustrated. When designed carefully, however, icons improve usability by reducing ambiguity and communicating functionality.
The ultimate aim of icon usability and design is to enhance the user experience, not confuse it. But what does that look like, and how can user interface designers ensure that the icons they make will be easily understood?
Skillful Icon Design Improves Product Usability
Icons are abstractions. They simplify objects, ideas, and commands into graphic symbols that may be quickly identified by the human eye. So, what makes icons useful, and how should they make the user feel?
Icons are easy to see and use.
How it feels: “That was easy. I looked at the screen and quickly found the icon I needed. I clicked it, and it worked as expected.”
Icons add cohesion to the experience within a product.
How it feels: “These symbols clearly mean something, and they help me navigate and operate this product.”
Icons work as cross-cultural context clues.
How it feels: “I don’t know the language, but I do know what that symbol means.”
Icons enhance and extend a brand’s visual storytelling abilities.
How it feels: “This brand is personal, yet professional. They care about being helpful in even the smallest of details.”
Cryptic Icon Design Makes Products Painful to Use
When icon design is given little thought or icon sets are hastily assembled as an afterthought in a product’s development, complications arise and lead to a poor product experience, miffed users, and a tarnished brand.
What are cryptic icons and how do they make users feel?
Cryptic icons are poorly associated with their actual functionality.
How it feels: “Wait, I thought that icon would do something different. What just happened?”
A cryptic icon set provides multiple options that appear too closely related.
How it feels: “Which one of these icons does what I want it to?”
Cryptic icons are culturally confusing.
How it feels: “Whoa! I’d never click on something so scandalous.”
Cryptic icons jolt users out of the intended experience.
How it feels: “I thought this app would help me budget my money, but these icons look silly. Is this product the right fit for me?”
10 Guiding Principles for World-class Icon Design
Now that we understand icon usability and how icons can either improve or hinder product usability, let’s examine a set of guiding principles that icon designers can use for virtually any icon design project.
- Work hard to understand the features that icons will be associated with. If you don't understand, don't guess. Ask.
- Avoid designing one icon at a time. Instead, approach icon sets as a whole. Ask yourself, "Is the set cohesive? Are there icons with double meanings or confusing associations? Is the set a good representation of the brand?"
- Bypass the computer and start early icon ideation with simple sketches.
Hand-drawn thumbnail sketches are an effective way to explore multiple icon design concepts and capture ideas quickly.
- Don't reinvent the wheel. Aim for universally understood symbols, and don't be afraid to utilize existing icon sets that are widely used and available on sites like Font Awesome and Material.io.
- When using stock icon sets, feel free to customize for brand alignment or added character, but don't sacrifice clarity.
- Use text labels where appropriate to boost icon usability. Text by itself is a hard target to click or tap, but when combined with icons, it helps users eliminate doubt and avoid symbolic misinterpretation.
- Don't sacrifice ease of use for eye candy design.
- Consider how icons fit within an interface's design hierarchy, and don't forget that different screen sizes may affect icon visibility due to scaling.
Notice the visual prominence of the "Search" icon in the mobile interface as opposed to the desktop version. The actual size between versions changes very little, but the mobile interface has less space so the icon stands out.
- Remember the 5-second rule. When creating icon concepts, try to think of symbolic associations within 5 seconds. Otherwise, the connection between word, action, and symbol may be weak.
- Test icons with real people. Are they recognizable? Are they memorable? If not, keep working.
We live in a world that’s saturated with visual information. We often make multiple choices in a matter of moments. “Where are we headed? How will we get there? What will we do when we arrive?” Icons help us cut through the clutter and quickly decide what’s important. They keep us happily engaged with the products we use every day, and when they work well, they promote brand satisfaction.
Sadly, icons fall short of their potential far too often. Poorly designed icons impede product usability, annoy users, and harm brand loyalty. For product designers and design teams, this is a major opportunity lost.
When icons enhance the user experience rather than confuse it, they achieve the main goal of any design endeavor; they improve quality of life. Remember, icons are abstractions, not afterthoughts. They are meant to relate complexity quickly and seamlessly, without pause from the user. This is no small feat for the designer, but it’s possible with careful planning, a methodical process, and human-centered user testing.