Death of the manual, icon literacy
Sort of a two-part post this time, but I’m jamming them together because they fit in the same category in my brain.
Death of the manual
It intrigues me how we learn to use technology these days. As a kid, I would at least give instruction manuals a quick flip-through out of respect. Now I barely even acknowledge its presence in the box. It’s just packaging, some annoying piece of nothing getting in the way of glorious glorious gadget time. Many of us prefer to just start pressing buttons and figuring it out from there. And with good, intuitive design, it usually doesn’t take us too long to figure it out.
Then I started to notice, sometimes there wasn’t any instruction manual at all.
When you purchase a laptop, you’re lucky if you get as much as a pictograph showing you to insert the battery, plug in the machine, and press the power button.
No manual. Why? Because most of it is obvious to those of us who have learned the codes and conventions of design. Buttons, links, navigation control, we know to look for these things. We expect a keyboard for text. We expect a scrolling mechanism to view an entire page. What isn’t immediately self-explanatory is learned behaviour. You pick up a digital camera and you know what to look for. Your grandmother does not.
And hey, if you get stuck on anything, there’s always the internet to help you figure it out. Why even bother printing instruction manuals anymore? We just look at the buttons and, most of the time, we know what they’re for. Intuitive design and learned behaviour preclude the need to explain expected functions.
I feel like this shift in learning is completely disregarding people who don’t “speak icon” the way most internet- and gadget-savvy people do. I’m not sure if this is a good thing. On the one hand, the process is streamlined and less wasteful, shaped to the sensibilities of the relatively tech-familiar majority. On the other hand, it means that people who don’t regularly use technology are going to struggle even more to adapt. I guess seniors don’t occupy a large enough chunk of the market to be accommodated. Then again, I suppose it’s expected that they have someone younger who’s a natural at the flailing-around-blindly-and-eventually-getting-it-right method of learning technology. They’re usually right; there are young translators at hand. And maybe this is a language they need to learn.
Part 2-ish: Icon literacy
Another thing along this line of thought that intrigues me is the use of text icons and non-text icons. The use of image/icon links instead of text links falls under this subject as well.
I’m just not sure why people use icons in place of text. I’m quite possibly being an idiot about this. Sure, icons take up less space. They’re prettier. But when I say “LOL USE THE PEN TOOL, NOOB” people only have any idea what I’m talking about if they’ve actually used the function in question.
Just look at all these Photoshop icons and tell me you can name them all and explain their function without checking:
It’s okay, I’ve been using the program for five years and I can’t quite do it either. You’re lucky I left the bottom section out; I don’t think I’ve ever used those.
The icons help you guess at their function, and you can read their names by mousing over them, but ultimately Photoshop takes a lot of learning because you have to learn which functions to associate with the icons.
Tumblr, on the other hand, includes text with their icons to clarify their function. However, it has a much simpler range of functions and doesn’t have to cram 20 icons onto the page. When there are more icons, like in forum post forms, eventually there are too many to completely understand them all.
What the heck does that C in a box do? What’s the arrow for? The typewriter? What?! And this is the part where you start experimenting (or your brain explodes) to figure out what these things are, or you ignore them because you don’t expect to need those things.
Just so I’m not being ludicrously unfair by comparing the almighty powers of Photoshop with websites, here’s some nice use of text and icons in Microsoft Word:
I’ve never had to create a visual tutorial to explain to someone how to do something in Word. But in Photoshop, explaining which tool is where is quite the challenge without using visuals. Go ahead, try to explain the Crop Tool icon to me right now. Don’t know which one it is? It’s the one in the top section, above the eyedropper, that looks like two pointy boomerangs overlapping and a thin diagonal line. Okay, that was awful.
To be fair, Word focuses on text, and Photoshop on image manipulation, so what works for one may not be appropriate for the other. I just really like text! Maybe I should be telling people to mouse over all their Photoshop icons until they find the one they’re looking for.
We have a very limited ability to convey functions through symbols. But through learning, we gain the ability to interpret more and more of these icons. For example the four touch capacitive buttons/symbols at the bottom of my darling smartphone. A list, a house, a reverse arrow, and an hourglass. This is my first smartphone. I instantly knew that these meant Menu, Home, Back and Search. I didn’t mourn the lack of text (though I am grateful for the text in the Menu options that pop up).
These symbols are being ingrained into our culture, if we consider culture in anthropological terms as “the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols”. Will our symbols grow simpler or more complicated? Whatever the case, intuitive design is tapping into learned links between symbols and actions. Think of how many different kinds of arrows you know how to interpret. These learned associations become instinct, and this helps streamline our technological experiences.
What might be the future of icon design? Will it become more accessible, or more exclusive? Are our grandparents well and truly screwed when it comes to learning how to use the tools we know and love?
Visual literacy is becoming more and more important. I wonder if we’ll soon be teaching symbol classes in elementary school alongside English and Math.
To clarify, because I feel guilty about my hasty phrasing, what I meant in this post about a lack of “individuality” in Apple products (namely the iPhone and iPad) is that there are very few style options to choose from and little visible difference between models. Admittedly, Samsung has gone a bit extreme with this by launching eighty billion (approx.) versions of the S and S2 series. Though Malcolm Gladwell notes the merits of giving consumers lots of choice (at least when it comes to spaghetti sauce), there has got to be a happy medium in there somewhere. Other companies making iPhone clones definitely does not fit into my happy little diverse gadget world.
I felt like I wasn’t representing both sides fairly, so I needed to get that out there. Android fangirl though I may be, I aim to treat all sides with respect. I salute you, Apple, your products just aren’t my bag.
I feel that drawing inspiration and useful functions from other companies isn’t a crime. But I also feel that not putting (enough of) your own spin into said inspired things makes it really difficult for consumers to view your company as innovative. So flaunt your differences, Samsung, because the world already has one Apple.
Apple vs. Samsung vs. Innovation
It all started one fateful night when I made a very, very big mistake. I poked a troll. Okay, he wasn’t a troll, but he was bordering on Rageface territory, so he generally didn’t seem like a great choice to have a reasonable, sane debate with.
In fact, I was a bit afraid there were going to be Molotov cocktails hurled through Samsung’s windows if I didn’t get to the bottom of what this Apple fan was so spitefully raging about. Had Samsung killed his parents?
Admittedly, I did consider trolling him myself. But then I remembered that my dad, who’s not yet on Twitter (he would just review craft beer anyway) but is just getting the hang of saying “epic” and using “fail” as a noun, checks my Twitter page to see what I’m doing. He is definitely not familiar with the concept of trolling. I’m not anonymous enough to be a jerk on Twitter. So instead, I strayed dangerously close to white-knighting on behalf of this brand that I had only recently bought into. GREAT PLAN.
Behold the hate! Do you see why I was afraid he might stab me, or worse, yell at me?
That part seemed reasonable. I felt like I’d gotten to the source of the hate. It was like having a civilized conversation where we represented our fandoms with some fairness and didn’t result to flaming-
Well, crap. That genuinely offended me, not as a Samsung user but as a human being. I spent 20 minutes debating how best to flame him before I put my civil pants back on. He’s not REALLY talking about cancer, calm the hell down, Dodge.
It got pretty unexciting after that, since I was being super-polite, assured him he was right about some things and mostly dropped the conversation when he told me to Google things instead of just giving me links. Dude, I’ve been researching this brand all week, I know what stories are out there. Give me articles and we’ll talk. Fine, let me give you articles! I will pester you out of existence!
But right after, below, is where the breakthrough happened. Can you spot it? In the next few exchanges I go from lip service to epiphany. (Reads bottom to top.)
I started off a little wishy-washy, thinking it’s totally cool to rip Apple’s designs as long as there are some distinguishing traits. No one’s gonna start designing something without that great big front touch screen and a grid of apps, because it’s what the consumer wants right now. Apple getting ripped off? That’s good for innovation, it’ll kick their butts into maybe not holding back quite so many features for the next release. It’ll push them harder. Apple shouldn’t have a monopoly on quality mobile devices, and they don’t! And blah blah blah lawsuits and patents and bears, oh my.
But then it hit me. Everything will look the same. People identify my Samsung Galaxy Captivate as different (and it gets passed around the room to try) because it doesn’t look like an iPhone (and definitely not like a BlackBerry). It’s a little boxier, definitely bigger, completely different buttons, and definitely not the same phone. But most of the S2s I keep seeing just look like big iPhones with some Androidy goodness bells and whistles. Since when did all consumers want the same-looking thing? Maybe this is killing innovation in the industry, if only in Samsung. Apple’s not likely to change their look. But everyone else, can we have our personalities back? An argyle gel case can only do so much to differentiate a clone.
There ended my most riveting Twitter debate to date. Thanks, respectfully blurred-out dude, for letting me bounce some thoughts off you only to realize that I feel strongly about the design of my phone and how it doesn’t resemble the one you’re trying to defend. Turns out we’re sort of on the same side.
Look at that beauty. Mine’s customized completely differently. Widgets everywhere. I love to use it, I love Android, I love Samsung and their quality hardware. But when I saw that one of my best friends has the Galaxy S2, the next model up, my jealousy faded the instant I handled the device. Better specs are always awesome, but it was rounded and typical. In shape alone I felt it had none of the personality that my more irregularly-shaped Captivate does.
I was ready to don the white armour for you in front of that scary not-sure-if-he’s-joking-or-going-to-burn-down-a-factory man, Samsung, but the truth is, your designs are coming very close to Apple’s and that’s bad for both of you. I salute you for taking them on directly. I salute you for having extremely competitive products. But it’s time for something I never see much of in Apple products: individuality. Neck and neck with the greatest rival the mobile world has ever seen, I think this is the time to flash some innovative design, and really show the world you can do better than just follow in their footsteps.