Home > Graphics > Icon Based Menus Editorial Icon Based Menus Editorial Guest post by Zakai Hamilton 2004-08-12 Graphics 21 Comments I thought some users might be interested in the editorial I wrote on my blog about Icon Based Menus. A new idea for freshing on the menu system since MacOS 1984. The same site includes more UI articles. 21 Comments 2004-08-12 5:59 pm It’s called a toolbar… 2004-08-12 6:27 pm …is is too much to ask for mock-ups? It reminds me of when people post reviews of Fedora and say “bluecurve looks so great these days!” and they don’t include screenshots. 2004-08-12 6:48 pm Hi, I don’t think the idea is very good, simply because it would take you large amounts of time to find and open the applications you want, less desktop productivity. The use of icons are only used in a positive way, when it makes you access items faster, byt either aiming at at larger target or my image relation to the application you want to use. For example a large icon on the top right corner of the screen area. I can’t see how browsing on a “film-strip” of applications snapshots, would make you access aplications faster. not to talk about that after a certain number of applications in the “film -strip” the time consume to access the applications would increase. If im mistaken about what you’re talking about, please post some mockups. Thanks. 2004-08-12 6:51 pm It seems to me that icon’s advantage is in recognition times. For myself I can find icons quicker than text because I can interpret them faster. But only if I see them a lot, so it makes sense on my tasbar. But menus are for those options you rarely select. Toolbars are for icons . 2004-08-12 6:56 pm …This means that if an icon reaches the center inside the spotlight, it’s window representation is brought to the front of the display… is this different then hitting Alt+Esc in windows? you’re seeing a windows ‘actual representation’ and you don’t need a gigantor bar (i’m assuming its going to be at least the size of a standard icon in height > 32px) at the bottom of my screen (all the time). And because icons dont change thier location, it allows for spatial browsing. if your icons are scrolling all over the place, including off the screen doesn’t that imply they are changing their location? and if the menu bar is replaced by another menu bar when you click one of the icons, how is that spatial? it sounds like an interesting idea, don’t get me wrong, but i think the text description is leaving too much to the imagination. i agree with the anonymous poster before me. a picture (or two) is worth a thousand words. 2004-08-12 7:14 pm If you see he Dock in Mac OS X, it is “like” a filmstrip (kinf of). The main problem with the dock is that “icon the place varies with the number of icons. One of the most “productive” characteristics of icons is when they´re in a fixed position. Although the trash can (in Mac´s dock) is always at the far right side, you have “to look for it”. In Systems 1 to 9, it was fixed and was easier to find. The task bar or the tools menu in every graphical application shows examples of what can be done and what shoudn´t be done. Text menus are hierarchical by nature, something not so well done in icon menues. Also, they can have several levels. I do not say that text menus are the best, only change them for something worthwhile. 2004-08-12 7:26 pm … had a theme that had Icon Based Menu. The menu had rows, and there were 3 icons per row. You would chose which application to launch by using the right, the left, or the third button of your mouse. 2004-08-12 7:29 pm I hate icons. I never know what they mean. Give me text any time. And I hate tooltips, too, because I have to pause over each icon to see what it does. Icons don’t help everyone, just SOME people. Which is why we have menus & toolbars both, not just one. I think the UI is fine, I don’t see some big struggle for people to figure out how to use menu bars. 2004-08-12 7:36 pm One of the most “productive” characteristics of icons is when they´re in a fixed position. Although the trash can (in Mac´s dock) is always at the far right side, you have “to look for it”. In Systems 1 to 9, it was fixed and was easier to find. I know this is off-topic, but I thought I’d give a tip: Get something like “TinkerTool” and pin the dock to the bottom-right corner (bottom:end). This, at least, allows your trash to be stationary, if that’s what you’re looking for. This will actually make your trash easier to find the trash than in OS9, since it will be accessable at all times (rather than being on the desktop, where it’s constantly being buried under tons of windows) I also find this makes the dock *feel* a little less volitile than if it’s centered. 2004-08-12 8:11 pm The good thing about regular text menus is that it is trivial to enforce consistent look and feel compared to what you could have with icons. Imagine an application that has different styles of icons for each of the menus, it’d be ugly and turn off many users to the application unless the styles were extremely relevant to the category. 2004-08-12 9:25 pm Anyone who suggests icon-based anything should really look up the problems of picture literacy. There is this myth that it is automatically easier to understand little pictures instead of words, based on the idea that you don’t need to be taught how to read pictures. That idea is quite wrong. What a picture means to someone is tied to their cultural perspective and personal experience. Even the process of looking at pictures varies from culture to culture and person to person. Moreover, most people don’t get any formal training in reading pictures, leading to even less commonality between viewers. Contrast that with words, which most people are taught to read in school. Most toolbars (the aforementioned icon-menu equivalent) are used by pattern recognition or position-based muscle memory. You can’t assume that someone will just understand what the button means at first glance. They have to be taught what the pictures mean at some point, either through training, help files or through traditional menus with little corresponding icons next to the text menu items (my favorite). Also, it is difficult to map keyboard equivalents to toolbar buttons because the pictures don’t necessarily imply standard word equivalents, and when they do those must be remembered. Lack of keyboard support reduces accessibility for the disabled. Seriously, icon-based menus are really only appropriate for touch-screen applications, and even then I would suggest buttons with words on them if you are worried about internationalization. 2004-08-12 10:27 pm One of the advantages of using Icons would be internationalisation of applications / OS’s etc… We create apps here that are sold in Australia and Asia. Adding other languages can be a long process (we probably don’t know what we are doing :-). I created an application and kept as much script out of it, using Icons instead. Once you’d used the application, you tended to know what each Icon meant (there were only 12 or so anyway), even if some of them weren’t that clear at first. It also meant that I didn’t have to touch the code when shipping to another country. Having said that, I’m not sure exactly how the author of this article intends to go about it for menus, I think I get the idea, but mock ups would have been brilliant. I think the main problem with UI’s in general is that programmers tend to be lazy and don’t plan the simplest interfaces for their applications. UI’s are an art unto themselves, maybe us programmers should work with “human interface designers” for the interfaces, and we code the business logic underneath 😉 2004-08-12 10:29 pm I should have said “tend to be lazy” or “don’t have enough time”… 🙂 2004-08-12 10:48 pm There are far more disadvantages, than advantages. For one icons are much harder to internationalize you need at lot more knowledge of culture to translate icons than text. They use too much of the space, and are likely to load slower than text. 2004-08-13 12:16 am AutoCAD had these back in the late 80s early 90s Trying to tell the bazillion icons apart in the first couple of Windows versions of AutoCAD was a big PITA. Luckily AutoCAD was very customizable in that department. Icons (ie: toolbars) are good for a few very heavily used functions or for sets of easily differentiated options). Also, menus made of icons are too narrow. You don’t have as much room for horizontal mouse cursor drift when scanning down such a menu. 2004-08-13 12:24 am If I had RTFA instead of scanning it, he seems to be describing something a bit different. It sounds more like an old style drill down menu system but with pretty graphics and scrolling. There are reasons that kind of system has fallen by the wayside (though web apps have brought it back to a great extent). 2004-08-13 12:43 am http://freshmeat.net/projects/pogo/ 2004-08-13 7:29 am The concept described reminds me a lot of the menus used in the Seiken Densetsu series of games, which is the combination of icon-based ring menus with a scrolling menus. The best implementation is the one of Seiken Densetsu 2 (Secret of Mana in the US). I found it to be a very practical to enter commands without using an additional screen, and is very simple to use. Sometimes which it was available in regular computer interfaces. 2004-08-13 9:57 am Another problem with icons is, the more you have / see on the screen , the better they must be, because you have to find and recognize them fast. No 2 icons are allowed to look similar. to gain optimum visual appearance and optimal user-friendlyness icons should be done in graphical/logo-way, photographic icons leads to nowhere. 99% of the photographic icons are useless, don’t have a proper appearance at small sizes. when working with os-x and the dock, the icons are a blurry mess and it’s difficult to spot the right one. If you have activate the automatic scaling of the dock, good night. 2004-08-13 11:31 am I posted a reply on my blog. 2004-08-14 12:19 am Like a trol, I have not read through all of the linked blog. Toom mcuh text, not enough pictures. However… I’ve used GUI WIMP deskops for over 12 years, and they are great, but I sometimes fail to recognise icons, even ones I use all the time. Most use of icons in Windows and OS X also combines text (folder view of files, drop down menus etc). One place where you just see is a list of icons is when Alt-Tabbing. I alt tab between apps all the time since my ‘motor’ memory gets used to the stack like arragment very quickly. However, if I’m not just going to the next appl, I have to scan along the list of icons for the app I want. I’ve notived that in OS X I sometimes fail to notice Safari and tab right past it, despite it being my most used app. I think this due to any destinctive shape or colour. On windows often get confused between Outlook and Rational ClearQuest as they both are a similar colour. I find Internet Explorer the most easily reccognised icon, mainly because of it’s distinctive colour, but also because it is a letter of the alphabet which and is thus one of the first symbols I ever learnt.