Are small links more attractive to people as icons or text?

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"Dear UX Agony Aunt

How do you make a small link attractive to people (icon vs. text)?"

— Cassie

Dear Cassie

I'm going to dive straight into this interesting question with a good old game of Pros and Cons, and then offer a resolution of sorts, with a meandering thought or two along the way. Let's kick things off with Team Icon.

The good side of icons: A picture is worth a 1000 words

When shopping online, the number above the little shopping trolley icon tells me how badly behaved I’ve been, and if I click on it, I know I’ll get to gleefully review all the shoes I've selected so far. There’s a whole heap of icons out there like this that people have absorbed and can use without thinking twice. Marli Mesibov wrote a fantastic article on the use of icons for UX Booth on the use of icons that is well worth a look. Marli discusses how they work well on small screens, which is a definite bonus when you’re on the go! Young children who aren’t yet literate can easily figure out how to open and play Angry Birds on their parent’s smartphones thanks to icons. And icons also have a great capacity for bridging language barriers.

The not so good side of icons: We’re too old for guessing games

On the flipside, there are some issues that may huff and puff and blow that cute little home icon down. Starting with there being no consistent standard for them. Sure, there are a handful that are universal like home and print, but beyond that it seems to be a free-for-all. Icons are very much in the hands of the designer and this leaves a lot of room for confusion to grow like bacteria in a badly maintained office refrigerator. Difficult to understand icons can also seriously hinder a user’s ability to learn how to use your website or application. When icons don't communicate what they intend, well, you can guess what happens. In a great piece advocating for text over icons, Joshua Porter writes about an experience he had:

"I have used this UI now for a week and I still have do a double-take each time I want to navigate. I’m not learning what the icons mean. The folder icon represents 'Projects', which I can usually remember (but I think I remember it because it’s simply the first and default option). The second icon, a factory, is actually a link to the 'Manage' screen, where you manage people and projects. This trips me up every time."

If people can't pick up the meaning of your icons quickly and intuitively, they may just stop trying altogether. And now, over to Team Label.

The good side of text: What you see is what you get

Sometimes language really is the fastest vehicle you've got for delivering a message. If you choose the right words to label your links, you'll leave the user with very little doubt as to what lies beneath. It’s that simple. Carefully-considered and well-written labels can cut through the noise and leave minimal ambiguity in their wake. Quoting Joshua Porter again: "Nothing says 'manage' like 'manage'. In other words, in the battle of clarity between icons and labels, labels always win."

The not so good side of text: Your flat shoe is my ballet pump

Text labels can get messy and be just as confusing as unfamiliar icons! Words and phrases sometimes don’t mean the same thing to different people. One person’s flat enclosed shoe may be another person’s ballet pump, and the next person may be left scratching their head because they thought pumps were heels and all they wanted was a ballet flat! Text only labels can also become problematic if there isn’t a clear hierarchy of information, and if you have multiple links on one page or screen.  Bombarding people with a page of short text links may make it difficult for them to find a starting point. And text may also hold back people who speak other languages.

The compromise: Pair icons up with text labels

Because things are always better when we work together! Capitalise on the combined force of text and icons to solve the dilemma. And I don’t mean you should rely on hovers — make both text and icon visible at all times. Two great examples are Google Apps (because nothing says storage like a weird geometric shape...) and the iPhone App store (because the compass and magnifying glass would pose an interesting challenge without text...):

When text and icons wins

So what comes next? (You can probably guess what I'm going to say)

Whatever you decide to run with, test it. Use whatever techniques you have on hand to test all three possibilities — icons only, text only, and icons and text — on real people. No Pros and Cons list, however wonderful, can beat that. And you know, the results will probably surprise you. I ran a quick study recently using Chalkmark to find out where people on the ASOS women's shoes page would click to get to the homepage (and yes, I can alway find ways to make shoe shopping an integral part of my job). 28 people responded, and...

Chalkmark first click text

...a whopping 89% of them clicked the logo, just 7% clicked the home icon, and just one person (the remaining 4%) clicked the label 'Home'. Enough said. Thanks for your question Cassie. To finish, here's some on-topic (and well-earned) comic relief (via @TechnicallyRon)

When icons go wrong

Published on May 27, 2015
Ashlea McKay
  • Ashlea McKay
  • Ashlea McKay is a UX researcher, writer and keynote speaker with an industrial design background. She has more than 8 years of experience spanning both the public and private sectors in Australia and internationally in the SaaS space. Ashlea co-founded UX advice column UX Agony Aunt with Optimal Workshop in 2015 and is heavily involved in the global UX community through industry publications, mentoring and conference speaking engagements. Ashlea is also a proud autistic person who was diagnosed later in life. After spending 30 years not knowing she was missing a key piece of her identity, finding out she’s on the spectrum was the best thing that ever happened to her. Ashlea is currently writing her first book on life as an autistic UXer and is based in Canberra, Australia.

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