— 28 July 2007 —

Push Button. Receive Bacon.

image of a hand dryer in a bathroom
Push Button. Receive Bacon., originally uploaded by Matthew Oliphant.

Someone at work recently sent out a request to see if anyone had done research on icons. Turns out I was the only one to respond.

I did a study on icons a few years ago. It was for my last job so it’s proprietary information, but I felt fine in passing on to my coworker that the results in general were: avoid icons as a primary means of communicating meaning.

You read this and say, well duh. Me too. Yet how many interfaces rely solely on icons to convey to the user just what they should do next?

My favorite icons (danger, danger! sarcasm approaching!) are the ones that use a tool tip (thinking online icons here) to tell the user what they are… and only use one word. Hey, here’s a thought… Just use the word!

My study looked at icons in context and out of context. Meaning was clearer in context of course, but most people were still unsure as to what the icons meant.

So the image above is a good case in point. Now, because I was in a restroom, and this device was close to the sinks, and I this isn’t the first time I’ve seen a device like this, I was 99.99% sure (p=< .001 if you like) that if I pressed the button, warm air would come out. Not bacon.

But someone who might look on this device for the first time (maybe from another country?) might be confused. I mean, this is America. It could be that bacon comes out of this thing.

If this post doesn’t teach you anything about the use of icons or understanding the use of devices in different contexts, let it learn you this: the cornerstone of good comedy comes when you take something, remove it from it’s context, and try to make it work based on the new context.

It’s why we love fish-out-of-water comedies about people who are so obviously white thinking they are black and machines that give us bacon in the bathroom.

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