USB Symbol

Confusing Symbols Are All Around Us

When I saw this article I felt compelled to share. It is a pet peeve of mine but more importantly a constant challenge to good human factors design. The challenge I am referring to is the use of symbols that are designed based on something other than the easy and reliable interpretation by the user.

We see a lot of icons every day. From any experience in the app store to pressing play on your Walkman, we interact with them all the time. But a lot of icons that are deeply engrained in our lives don’t actually make any sense. We looked at top 5 most confusing icons, and tried to trace their origins back to where they came from.

There are a few reasons this challenge appears. For one, times change. If you look at the icon for , it is often a sketch of a 3 ½” floppy disk. When was the last time you saw one of those? Most of my students have never seen one. The only reason they know what the symbol means is because it is common, and they have learned it over time.

A second category is symbols that are based on some underlying network architecture that is obvious to the programmer but completely unintelligible to the typical user. The article uses the USB icon as a good example. I am relatively computer savvy compared to most consumers, but I would not have guessed that this symbolizes USB if I hadn’t learned it manually.

A third category is symbols based on some convoluted logic that made sense to the designer at the time but fails to translate in reality. The article uses the power icon as a good example of this one. As he describes it, you can see the logic. But you can’t do the reverse. Starting with the symbol, most people would never guess.

My Take

As you all know, the solution to this is simple user-centered design. The objective is to develop a symbol that is simple enough to fit on buttons, toolbars, product packaging, or whatever space that will be available on the design. But also complex enough for the user to differentiate it from other symbols that might appear in that context. This is not a trivial task, but we have a process for it. There is a science of semiotics dedicated to it. If there is some background knowledge that most users will already have, that can serve as a useful starting point. But if not, don’t try to make one up using one of the three categories I outlined above. These are counterproductive because they tie your hands.

Your Turn

Maybe we can use this space to share examples of confusing symbols that we seem to be stuck with. The commenter can suggest an alternative or other commenters can add them to the stream. That could be fun.

Image Credit: Mobius

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