All entries for Friday 11 May 2007

May 11, 2007

The tortoise and the… camera

Writing about web page

The tortoise and the cameraBrowsing the New York Times this morning, I noticed this image in the sidebar of the article I was reading. Based on the image, what do you think the article was about?

  • The photographic memory of the tortoise?
  • Cameras which work by actually sucking their subjects inside their body?
  • Animal-technology hybridization (the bionic turtle, if you will)?
  • Deadly camera-destroying amphibians which like to chew their way through consumer electronics?

Disappointingly, it’s none of the above; it’s shutter lag in digital cameras. It makes sense once you know, and on the page itself, it’s a whimsical but not absurd illustration of the topic. But it’s an amusing example of the icon problem; most modern interfaces use icons to represent actions and objects. So the home icon in your web browser means “Go to your home page”, and the left arrow icon means “Go back to the previous page”. But how do you know what an icon means?

  • Sometimes the implication of the icon is so obvious that even if you’ve never seen this icon used before you can guess what it will do.
  • Some icons are universally used to mean something, so even though the icon doesn’t imply its meaning in isolation, you learn its meaning once and can then re-use your knowledge everywhere else. The cut/copy/paste icons are like this; they aren’t intuitive, but since every application which supports CCP (which is almost all applications) uses them, you end up knowing what they stand for even though they don’t visually represent themselves clearly.

The problem is that most icons aren’t like this. Most actions aren’t easy to convey with a single static image. Most applications have a bunch of actions and objects which are specific to that application, and therefore the designer can’t rely on users having seen and learned the iconography elsewhere. Example: how many of these icons (from PowerPoint) can you confidently predict the meaning of?

PowerPoint icons

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