Do icons enhance usability? Let’s have a glance at what research says.

04 March, 2017


Have you seen websites which have too many icons? They opine that users love icons and they think when users see more icons they love their site. However, on the contrary, research says that more icons provide less usability and confuse the users a lot more.

Common sense approach

We will come to the research later. But for now let’s understand from a logical point of view.

Let’s say you have too many options as a user. What would you do? Which one you would click? And which one you would let go of? Yes, if there are many icons that are demanding for your attention, then you will suffer from “analysis-paralysis” and lastly you would leave the website to avoid the need to choose.

Barry Schwartz, the author of the book “The Paradox of Choice” mentions that if you have too many choices, you would not be able to choose a single one from all of it. So, if you increase the number of icons in your site, it would never enhance usability. Rather it would confuse the users.

The story of Microsoft Outlook Toolbar

Microsoft Outlook Toolbar was not a hit. And people who are novices never used the icons of the toolbars.

To solve this issue, many changes have been tried. First, they included new icons; there was no change in the usage. Then they tried to rearrange the icons to increase usability. That also flopped. They even positioned the icons under the menus; but still there was no significant difference.

Then they did one final thing which turned around everything. They identified the important buttons in the toolbar and they labelled those buttons. And suddenly all the users started using the toolbar and the toolbar got hit.

There are two things that we should notice here –

  • First, no turnaround happens when the icons are changed or increased or rearranged. That means more icons don’t mean more usability.
  • Second, when they identified the most important buttons in the toolbar as labels, everything changed. As the users could recognize the most important labels with ease, the usability got enhanced.

But do icons have any benefits?

Most certainly! As we are trying to understand why icons always don’t increase usability; we also need to know the benefits of icons. Here are some of the benefits of icons –

  • Enticing targets: Icons act as good targets. People seem to touch them more often when they are made large enough (in a finger operated user interface).
  • Icons are visually attractive: Icons attract a lot of people to click because they are aesthetically very attractive.
  • Icons save space: Icons should be compact enough to leave room for other things like toolbars etc. and icons are able to get displayed even in a relatively small space.
  • Articulates the similar product family: It is much easier for icons to express product family when similar icons are used in various places and when they convey the similar meaning.
  • Brings forth the culture: If the icons are used in a culturally sensitive manner, icons don’t need to explain anything to international users. They are able to decipher what the icons mean to say.


But that doesn’t mean icons always enhance usability. Let’s have a look at why icons are not able to enhance the usability of the users.

Here’s why icons don’t always enhance the usability of a website

You may wonder but why icons don’t seem to impact audience when they are colourful, aesthetically solid and were built to serve a purpose. Here are few reasons you may consider –

  • Previous experience: People use icons purely by their previous experience. And as there are no usage guidelines for icons, users need to make sense of the icons all by themselves which make them feel frustrated and confused.
  • Become eye candy without clarity: If the users don’t understand the meaning of icons and why the icons are being placed at the first place, then icons don’t convey any message and they just become the eye candy for users – attractive, but useless.
  • Visual noise: Excessive use of icons increase visual noise for which users feel frustrated, confused and as a result, icons are not always able to enhance usability.
  • Complexity of use: Icons are designed in such a way that they represent a brand. But often times the colours, the symbols are not readily meaningful to the users. And then they get confused about the brand and what it is trying to convey.

But can icons be designed in the right way to enhance usability? The answer is certainly yes. Here’s how the icons should be designed.

Here’s how you need to design icons to enhance usability

  • Design the simple and schematic icons: Don’t go into too much complexity. Design the icons in such a simple manner that users don’t find them unusable. Reduce the amount of graphic details. And it’s better not to give any intricate details in smaller sizes.
  • Test the icons in real market: Before launching your website, ask the users whether they can recognize the icons clearly just by looking at them or not. Whatever feedback you receive, work around and design the icons accordingly.
  • Take the 5 second test: While designing, try to ponder what you want to convey through the icons. If it takes more than 5 seconds for you to think about an icon that you want to use for a brand, it will not communicate to the audience what you try to convey.
  • Do another set of testing: Remembering about an icon is of utter importance. Select a series of users and tell them what the icons of your website stand for and then after few days ask the same question and see whether they can remember what you told them or not. If not, your icons are not worthy enough to remember the meaning.

So, icons may enhance usability, but if you know how to design them! Otherwise, icons on your website will only confuse your users.

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