Icons: Symbols for Success

How many times have you been confused by a tiny icon on a screen?

Do this right now. Get out your mobile, click on any app, and do a random survey of how easy it is to use those app icons to navigate the site.  Chances are that those miniscule icons inside the app will lead you down many dead ends. Or perhaps they are too small to click on and are difficult to see.

Or how about this? When you are driving and trying to navigate using street signs (this is an analogue experiment not using real time Google map directions) what do you do when those signs change names on the same street?  Yes, it is possible for the same street to suddenly have different names.  Smith Street turns into Jones Avenue.  Now what?

The point is that signs and icons are supposed to help us guide us to our destination, not confuse us.

Using this basic principle, how do you explain why instructional designers often ignore the icons that would make the course a no-brainer to navigate and enhance the subject matter? Remember, the idea of a good icon is to illuminate, not frustrate.

So let’s examine the basic principles of why icons work:

First, good icons are quickly recognised. If you get near an electrified fence and you see a yellow sign with an icon of a person being electrocuted, the message is pretty clear even without the word “danger”.  Right and left arrows are also good icons that immediately express the commands “forward “and “back”.

Second, good icons contextualise the learning and improve comprehension of the subject.   A good example would be an exclamation point that would indicate this is an important point.  Or the icon of a dollar sign, which could indicate the cost of a service.   If you are going to use of emojis, or other social networking icons, do so sparingly because they can trivialize the learning point.

Third, well designed icons can improve the appearance of a learning experience. So it pays to make sure the icons are bright and stand out, and are not buried under an avalanche of words and graphics.

And final point, well designed icons can improve memory by linking the symbol with material. We learn best by associating points of fact with images like pictures and icons.  The association is invaluable for learning retention.

In the next article, we will tackle icon style.

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