I'm working on a project right now where we are updating a web app and so I'm getting to talk to users and customers. One weakness that keeps coming up is that they can't figure out the icons.
Not all of them, and that's been the important aha for me. Here's my new insight:
- Icons that differentiate among broad categories = good
- Icons that differentiate among nuances within a category = not good
In practical terms, I see this problem showing up in grids a lot. For example, in a web app that manages customer service tickets, we have columns for things like priority and status. Our priorities are High, Medium, and Low, and we have about six statuses like New, Assigned, In Progress, etc.
In our zeal to be more graphic, we have icons for the priority levels and for the statuses. Looks good! Problem is that no one can remember the icons and they have to mouse over the icon to see the tool tip.
In this case I think words are better than pictures, and users would rather have dull and useful over graphically rich and obtuse.