User interfaces and accessibility are some of the most important aspect of an application. It can have a million features, it can do a thousand things once, but if it doesn’t look quite right then it will be a disaster. Take Linux for example. This open source (free) operating system has been around for quite a while, and it has been very appreciated for its stability and speed. However, in its earlier days it lacked a user interface, which made it very unattractive to the general public. While a few years back Linux was used only by system administrator and computer freaks, Microsoft’s Windows was all over the place, pumped up by its friendly user interface, even though it had a lot of bugs and was very unstable. Today’s things are quite different. People have learned from their mistakes and now, most operating systems, including Linux, use a graphical interface and are very user-friendly – things that in the past you could do by writing lines and lines of instructions, you can now do with a few clicks. This major improvement has brought in a whole new class of users, and the popularity of this operating system has increased considerably.
This is why the user interface matters a lot to the average computer user, and icons are one of the most important issues at matter. But why use icons and not plain text? Well, icons are visual mnemonics, that is, they are easier to remember. We see an icon a few times (or maybe once) and we “learn” it, and afterwords we associate the image with a certain action. The same thing happens with text, but it’s a lot faster to “read” an icon than it is to read a text, which makes icons a lot more recommended. Furthermore, adding icons to the important components of your application will sometimes save you from the frustration of answering the users who are not very familiar with the application and have trouble finding out how to use a certain feature. For example adding a question mark icon next inside the help button will make it easier for users to figure out where they can get help.
Today’s developers know that users will learn how to use a certain application a lot faster if its interface looks like the applications they are already familiar with. Take for example a Mac: can you see how all applications look pretty much the same? So it’s really easy to start using new applications, and you don’t have to read the manual to see what each button does, because most likely you’ll figure out that on your own. But there are two sides to this: if all applications look more or less the same, where is the uniqueness? Then again, if the application is totally unique, users might find it difficult to get acquainted with. So the best way to go is to use an interface that combines both these rules – not an “average” looking user interface, but also not a totally unique one. It’s easy to get stuck with this idea, but this is where icons come in.
Icons are the easiest way to differentiate your application, while still keeping a note of familiarity. Most developers have found it very efficient to replace the operating system’s stock icons with their own custom-made icons. How? Well, start with the little things. Try adding shadows to icons, or maybe apply different effects (emboss, blur, add a border, etc.) using a graphics editor. Another approach is to change the icon’s colors. Make them all blue, yellow, or some other color you might think it would look great with the rest of the interface. A toolbar with enhanced, yet similar buttons (for example replacing the New, Open, Save, Print, Cut, Copy, Paste icons) really improves the overall interface. After replacing the icons, it’s a lot easier to make the next step and start changing colors.
But what to do with these old-fashioned users that like to keep it simple? How about people with special needs, who might have problems reading small texts or seeing some colors. Also, there must be a way for all the people – and it’s really a mystery here – who like the same old icons and colors on all their applications. Fortunately, the answer is simple: different application skins! It’s a good idea to have a “standard” skin for the users who like to keep it simple, offering the basic features in a really easy to use manner, and then to create a few more enhanced skins for the people that like different interfaces – big fat buttons with shiny icons for the main applications features, or perhaps lots of toolbars with many buttons for advanced users. Again, the easiest way to creating new skins is changing the icons and colors. You don’t really have to change the layout of the application and move all the toolbars/buttons/windows around, for it might require sometimes too much work. But replacing icons is really easy. Voila! You have a new skin!
Today’s computer applications are focusing more and more on graphics, and especially icons, while text interfaces are becoming less popular. The modern applications’ interfaces use icons and text as well, but paying a special attention to icons. This way it’s a lot easier for users to learn how the application works, so therefore they will accomplish their tasks quickly. An intuitive interface and standard behaviors don’t require much explanation, and a well-designed application must not get into the user’s way, but must provide fast access to its most important features. This is the general rule which brought Microsoft millions and millions of dollars for it’s main product – the Windows operating system – so why shouldn’t we follow their example?