Going Glanceable* : The importance of clear icons using the MacOS X Dock as an example and starting point. comment


MacOS X is finally out. There has been much discussion over the new, larger icons and the appearance of a totally new feature in the Macintosh experience; the Dock- a feature which allows users to leave items at the bottom of the screen.


Apple MacOS X at the time of writing this article: http://www.apple.com/macosx/technologies/aqua.html

Apple's Dock, early 2002 (this article was not revised from the time of the beta release to full release, but the Dock has not changed substantially. BTW, that spring with the email '@' is a URL!


Has Apple solved the ambiguities from earlier developer release versions of communicating what those little icons in the Dock mean, what they do? In a word: No. What are those little pictures in the Dock? Which one is a program? Which one is a document and what kind of a document is it- what's inside the document?

This article does not try to explain what the icons are, what they represent, nor does it go into discussing the silly idea Apple has decided on to separate active, running programs and docked programs by an arbitrary line (which side is which- which applications are running and which are dormant? What's the thinking here?). Neither does it go into the incredible little triangles under the icons to show which are actually running. This article will only look at the icons, question their impotence in being informative and suggest procedures to improve the icon design system both in the Dock and in the computer information environment in general..

But first, why is it important to examine the icons? The icons are the users gateway to moving through the computers information and functionality. If the icons communicate clearly, giving the users everything he or she needs at a glance, the user can maneuver smoothly through their work. However, if the icons are ambiguous and require the user to stop and think when an action needs to be carried out, the experience becomes a chore and less mental energy is left to deal with the actual work.

In this respect Apple has failed. MacOS 9 represents the most elegant and efficient user experience known to the author and MacOS X promises many advances, but unfortunately there are also some worrying deficiencies, the less than stellar employment of icons being maybe the worst.




The world of Human-Computer-Interface (HCI) design- the computer industry term for those who are responsible to make computer systems easier and more efficient to use- is not so different from that of other fields. A central HCI principle is: Things which are different are different- it is useful to be able to distinguish between different things with a minimal amount of effort. That may be obvious to you, but apparently it is not to Apple.

Icons are a large part of the visual language the computer uses to communicate with the user, along with windows, colored text and so forth. Because of the ubiquity and importance of icons you'd be forgiven for assuming that icons hold some special position in the computer system, but no. Icons are at the most basic just a collection of pixels (picture-elements, the small dots on the computer monitor or TV screen, each projecting Red, Green and Blue light) 'drawing' on screen what will happen once the icon is interacted with. For example, this can be a function, such as saving a document or it can result in a program, a folder or a single file opening. To communicate at a glance what the icon represents, that is the job of the human-computer-interface designer. It takes a human being, or a group of human beings to decide what should say what, what icon or drawing should indicate what kind of consequence. There is nothing automatic about how an icon should look.

The world humanity has grown up in has been one of direct action- you pick up what looks like an axe and chances are you'll end up having an axe in your hand. You pick up a letter and you expect to have that letter in you hand. With icons it's not so simple. You can double click on what looks like an email message and have an email program open. That wasn't a message, that was a program, which looked like a message. Darn. Understanding and maneuvering in an environment with has no self-consistent logic does not make for an efficient work environment. If you cannot intuitively, at a glance, be sure that what you think something is, actually is so: You try to send email so you click on a springy '@' sign. And a Web page opens. Such is he confusion of Apples MacOS X icons.

Even if you have correctly identified something you that is only half the battle. OK, you found a document. What's in it? All you are given is the documents title. Imagine if when you laid out your documents on your desk you could only see what was written on them if you picked them up and help them up to your face. This is the way computer desktops work today (MacOS X and the rest). It's not very useful in allowing for a smoother work flow.

Developing a unique icon for every conceivable thing an icon can represent is just silly to even contemplate. The problem is that actions are difficult to iconize. Witness that springy '@' sign designed to show Web page in the Dock... A sad example. How would you illustrate, without ambiguity, the action of saving a document? Opening a document? Have you seen it attempted in tool bars in attempts to make it easier for the user? It just doesn't. Programs are even worse, as they are a collection of actions, or tools and functions- modern programs have become environments in their own right. How do you reduce a word processor to an icon? OK, how about a 3D modeling, rendering and animation program which also allows the user to create custom textures, not unusual category? You don't. You create a 'logo'. You spend tons of money marketing the 'brand' which the 'logo' hopefully embodies.

In many cases words are much more effective than pictures, even pictures which call themselves icons as thought the superfluous detail has been left out and only the essence of what is to be expressed is left. The reasons that words are better is that they are themselves abstracts and require learning to understand and pictures are specific, not generic. For example, a cat. If you look at a picture of a cat you will see that specific cat with its specific color and pattern, amount of fur, size, sex and age. If you read the word cat it refers to what you feel is a generic cat, embodying all that is 'catty' but not more. Until you start to think about it and build a mental 'picture' of a cat in your head and specifics start to kick in. Even a black and white line drawing will necessarily relate more to one type if cat than another. There is no iconic cat. You cannot picture something which has become an abstraction, the notion of a cat vs. the specifics of a single real cat. Just like the notion of opening a document or searching the Web.

Sure, once learned, pictures can be useful in quickly showing where a function is when looked for again, reading a list is not necessarily quicker than seeing a familiar picture among many. When the right conditions are met, with the icons unambiguously communicating at a glance what they are about, they are great. Wonderful. So where is the contradiction?

When you use a program a couple of times that program icon, no matter what it is, becomes the program for you. That is Adobe Photoshop. Something as unique and comprehensive (many-faceted, it can do a lot of things, not just one thing) a program can stand having a unique 'face' to the user. The kind of face the software developer has to make you understand and like. A documents however need to reflect the uniqueness of that specific document and not just what kind of a document it is to be glanceable and folders can benefit from providing transparency as to what they contain, not just that they are generic folders. Functions however, forget it. Imagine illustrating copy and pasting something (text, picture?). Many have tried. And failed. There are some notable exceptions, as outlined below.




The way forward is to accept defeat in designing completely clear and unambiguous icons and set down a simple grammar. A self consistent, easy to learn set of rules where the constituent parts are easily distinguishable at a glance. Does that seem like a reasonable and worthwhile goal? This is what I propose to Apple for their icons (from Icons & Glanceability):

Documents. (files). The biggest and most important challenge. They need to communicate at a glance not only that they are indeed documents and what kinds of documents they are (plain text, word processing, HTML, picture, video, audio etc.) but they also need to give a preview of what they contain (some text from the beginning of the document or a thumbnail picture fx.).

So box them in. Put a frame around the icon describing what kind of document it is, such as a picture frame for a still picture and a movie film frame with holes- sprockets for video. Put a thin line around text files with a page curl in one of the corners (which Apple has done since day one). And stick the preview image thumbnail or text preview inside the appropriate frame. The frame it is important to note, will not be allowed to be bypassed by program makers. MacOS X will read the document as a document and always frame it. And all documents will always be framed, to easily distinguish them from programs.

Folders. Folders come in all kinds of various states: Empty, with only a couple of documents, with a ton of documents, with programs, with pictures only, with text and pictures, with HTML and pictures, new and old local and on the network, own or owned by someone else, static and dynamic, with comments and plain. You get the picture. But you only get the one same looking folder from Apple, not matter what (unless you are a crafty little geek and use Folder Icon Maker or cut and paste your own icon into the folders 'Get Info' window).

The folders will also benefit from a framing system. Empty folders can be illustrated by being semi-transparent and faded. Open folders shown literally open, a small number may indicate the amount of documents in the folder and maybe a small icon will be inset inside the icon to illustrate the most frequent document type inside the folder.

Programs. (applications). Let the programs be the the creative types and show their unique face to the world.. Let them be cool and colorful and organic. Only two ground rules are suggested: Programs will not be allowed to have a frame or background and they must have two states: one for when the program is not running, and one for when it is running, much like today. Today though, the icon of a running program looks like a flat cut-out of the regular icon. But hang on, isn't the fact that the user has deemed the program important enough to use a reason to highlight it? Give it a more pronounced drop shadow while glowing the object itself. Make the sucker shine! Not sit on a tiny little triangle. What is that all about?

Since programs can rarely live alone these days, they need a bevy of helper documents, it is useful to provide a mechanism for the user to indicate which programs are their daily fare. Once this is done (upon installation of the program or later through a system preference) the programs can enjoy a favored position in the Dock. Slightly grayed out when not active and shining bright when up and about, they will be easily accessible and not clutter, as the user has specifically given them the lauded position of being the daily ones, the main ones. Other programs can appear in the Dock, but only when running.

Functions. (copy, paste, open etc.) Forget it, unless it really is bleedingly obvious, use words. Not a popular position, but also not really relevant to the icons discussed here, the ones who live in the Dock.

Some functions have managed to slip into the culture of computer users though, including alignment of text in word processors and bold, italic and underline. These kinds of icons show a simplified version of what they will do when activated.They need training to understand at first but that it is 'designed into' the user experience. Though clear, they are not expected to be obvious at first glance. As they look like the effect of clicking them, they provide a strong recollection and recognition response. These are the best kind of icons; icons which literally can show a simplified version of what the consequences of clicking them are. They are rare, and beautiful.

Status. Showing the status of something is an area where icons can be useful. The different kinds of processes icons can help make glanceable are: General status of a system (online/offline etc.) which can be linearly time based (starting up, loggin on) or not time based (errors etc.) and progress of user requested tasks (copying a document, logging on to a service etc.). The general status of a system includes ones which should be presented to the user in an intrusive manner (important/error messages etc.), un-obtrusively (not important errors as well as notifications etc.) and those which should have a 'normal' indicators always available which changes into a different message when appropriate and those which should not exist until there is something to report. As long as the user knows what's going on or can easily find out, that is all that matters.




The solution Apple has for organizing the users information and work environment both in the Dock and in the new Finder is the same as it was with the original Mac in 1984. This worked great when the users were likely to have maybe four or five programs and a couple of handfuls of documents.

Since then, this has become a nostalgic fantasy world as users today have hundreds and hundreds of documents and information they consider their own or relevant to their daily lives, residing on databases and on the Internet as well as on their local hard drives. While beyond the scope of this article, this is a relevant point as it helps highlight the craziness of showing a single word processing document in the same way as a full featured image creation and manipulation environment for example. Laid out in the same way. Same kind of icon, same size, same portability, as easy to loose and get confused with. Sure, dragging a large colorful icon onto a zooming expanding dock makes for an impressive demo, but for the average computer user, less useful than an environment which lives up to the name Apple has christened their new interface: Aqua. Aqua, such a poetic and evocative name, alluding to letting the users flow though their information in ways un-imagined when screens were 9" and black & white. Shame it doesn't.

Following Moore's Law, computers are now 256 or so times more powerful than the original Mac was in 1984, indeed, the new G4 machines can do 3 billion calculations per second. To put that another way, the computer can complete an operation in less time than the light takes to travel from the monitor to your eyeballs.

Has the user experience, the interface, kept up at all?

Isn't it time it did?

The only improvement/change as far as the user interface is concerned since 1984 is color and size. What a waste.




Human-Computer-Interface professionals like to speak in terms of interfacing with computers, while in truth no one else is interested in interfacing with computers; the rest of the world is interested in interfacing through computers, interfacing with their information and with other people. This becomes difficult when you have to stop and try to figure out what every thing is, what everything does every step of the way.





© Frode Hegland
London 2000




* Glanceable, being communicated at a glance. 


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