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.