Georgia Tech Research Institute

Labeling: Issue 5 of 6

Issue: Icons used in place of text labels may be ambiguous.

A set of function buttons (help, back, cancel, enter) on a numeric keypad is shown.  The buttons are labeled only with icons, and the meaning of the icons is ambiguous.

Graphical icons may be used to identify controls in place of text labels for various reasons: to produce a device that is language-independent, to reduce the amount of space required to label controls and components, or to achieve a desired aesthetic effect in the design of the device. However, understanding icons, especially if the icons are very abstract and/or are unfamiliar to the user, can be difficult, especially for users with cognitive impairments.

Populations Impacted: All users with vision, especially those with cognitive impairments.

Potential Solutions:
  • Limit the use of icons. Consider the use of icons carefully, and avoid using icons instead of text labels for the sake of aesthetics or other considerations to the detriment of usability. Consider supplementing icons with text labels for clarity.

  • A set of function buttons (help, back, cancel, enter) on a numeric keypad is shown.  Text labels are printed on or below the buttons, with icons supplementing the text.
  • Use standard or familiar icons. Icons representing certain functions or controls (such as stop, play, fast forward, headphone output, volume, etc.) are widely used and are likely to be familiar to most users. Avoid deviating too far from the common appearance of those types of icons. Other icons (such as a depiction of a memory card next to a memory card slot on a digital photo ordering kiosk) may be clear in the context in which they appear. The use of new icons to represent abstract concepts should be avoided.

  • When new icons must be developed, test the icons with members of the user population to ensure that the meaning of the icons is clear. User testing may provide insight into how to design clearer, more meaningful icons. Care should be taken to sample a representative portion of the targeted user population, including users with disabilities.

Applicable Guidelines:
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