Emoji IA – What is a Lobster?

6 min read Optimal Workshop

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So what does it mean when that picture is forced to live in a predefined category?

Q Walker, Experience Lead at PaperKite, a digital product/tech agency based in Wellington, recently spoke at UX New Zealand, the leading UX and IA conference in New Zealand hosted by Optimal Workshop, about Information Architecture (IA) and the world of emojis.

In their talk, Q discusses how emoji IA reflects how humans make sense of a nuanced world. Through painstaking manual analysis of emojis across platforms, Q discovered the limitations of neatly defined categories. When it comes to IA, should one-size-fit-all?

Background on Q Walker

Q Walker (they/them) is the Experience Lead at PaperKite, a digital product/tech agency based in Wellington. Q passionately specializes in UX research and strategy and has never quite let go of their graphic design roots – which is a good thing, because they also lead a cross-disciplinary team of researchers, designers, and marketers. Q is also a musician, actor, public speaker, horror movie aficionado, tightwire walker, and avid gardener, and has been described as a walking exclamation point.

Contact Details:

Email address: q@paperkite.co.nz

LinkedIn URL: https://nz.linkedin.com/in/q-walker

Emoji, those tiny digital icons that have become ubiquitous in our online conversations, play a significant role in enhancing our written communication. They add humor, nuance, clarity, and even a touch of mischief to our messages. However, behind the scenes, there is a complex system of information architecture (IA) that helps us navigate and utilize the vast array of over 3600 different emojis available today, each with its own variations in skin tone, gender, color, and more. In this exploration of emoji organization, Q Walker delves into the world of IA to understand how these expressive icons are categorized, and why it matters.

Background and Research Goals

This journey into emoji IA began as a personal curiosity for Q, initially observing how certain emojis seemed to shift between categories on different platforms, while others remained stable. For instance, emojis like the ‘lobster’ and ‘heart’ were found in various categories. This initial research aimed to understand why this inconsistency occurred across different platforms, whether it posed a problem for emoji IA, and whether it could (or should) be fixed. 

The research evolved over time, incorporating emojis across platforms like Unicode, Apple, Slack, and others, which have slight variations in style and categorization. Emojis from each platform were organized and sorted (manually!) on a spreadsheet.

Initial Findings: Explicit vs. Implicit Frameworks

The core finding of the research revolved around two prevailing emoji frameworks or categories: explicit and implicit. “Explicit” categorization is utilitarian, describing precisely what an emoji represents based on its visual elements. In contrast, “Implicit” categorization highlights the symbolic and contextual meanings of emojis, reflecting what they represent beyond their visual appearance.

Two methods emerged to identify which framework, explicit or implicit, emoji fell into:

  • Contextual Examination: By observing where an emoji is placed within a platform’s IA, we can determine whether it leans towards explicit or implicit categorization. For example, Apple categorizing ballet shoes under “activity/arts” reflects implicit categorization, while Unicode placing them in “shoes/footwear” represents explicit categorization.
  • Name Analysis: Analyzing how emojis are named can reveal their intended meanings. For instance, the “red paper lantern” emoji is sub categorized as part of “light and light sources” within Unicode, but Apple refers to the same emoji as an “Izakaya lantern”, attaching specific Japanese culture to the emoji. Therefore, the “red paper lantern” naming convention by Unicode would be classed as explicit, whereas Apple’s “Izakaya lantern” would be classed as implicit.

Even within these two prevailing frameworks, disagreements persist. For instance, the lobster emoji is categorized as “food” by some platforms and as “animal” or “nature” by others, showcasing discrepancies in explicit categorization. 

Emoji Design and Presentation

Emoji design is important, as it influences how users perceive and interpret them. For instance, the choice to depict a red lobster implies that lobster is categorized as “food” because lobsters are typically not red unless cooked. Another example is the “syringe” emoji, which is undergoing an evolution from a blood-filled needle, to something more generic with clear or no liquid. In this way, the syringe emoji has broader application to things like vaccination.

This lack of standardization between platforms can be the cause of serious and unfortunate miscommunication! For example, the transformation of the gun emoji into a toy water pistol, despite its innocent appearance, still carries its historical baggage, as seen in its categorization within Apple’s IA near other weapons and dangerous objects. This highlights the messy and non-standard nature of emoji IA.

Why it matters

So, what do emojis teach us about information architecture? 

Firstly, it teaches us to be flexible with how we navigate a multitude of data. With thousands of emojis and limited categories, finding the right emoji can be challenging.  Platforms have adopted various approaches to address this issue:

  • Recommendations: Many platforms offer personalized emoji recommendations based on frequency and recency of use. This feature simplifies emoji selection for users and streamlines navigation.
  • Search Functionality: Some platforms incorporate a search bar, allowing users to quickly locate specific emojis. While this might be seen as a lazy solution, it proves practical in the context of emoji navigation.
  • Ultra-customization: Slack, for example, takes customization a step further by allowing organizations to create their emoji categories. This results in a highly personalized experience for users.

Secondly, it may be that a fully standardized framework for emoji categorization isn’t feasible or even desirable. Where IA would like us to neatly categorize an emoji as one thing, the reality is that they are nuanced and can have multiple meanings, making them difficult to fit into rigid categories –  just as ballet shoes can represent “shoes” (Unicode) and “art/entertainment” (Apple) simultaneously. Instead, we have the flexibility to categorize emojis based on what is most meaningful to their users. A standardized framework may not capture this complexity, and embracing the diversity of categorization enriches our understanding of human expression.

The lobster emoji serves as a poignant example of how emoji can take on new meaning and human expression. A Unicode approval of the lobster emoji over the trans pride flag a few years ago highlighted issues of representation. This decision led to the adaptation of the lobster emoji as a symbol within the trans community, further demonstrating how meaning is adapted and attributed to emoji in many ways.

Key takeaway

Emoji IA is a testament to the diverse ways we make sense of our world and a reminder that often there are no limits to interpretation and creativity. As designers we should ask ourselves –  how do we ensure that our IA and products cater to our diverse reality?

What is UX New Zealand?

UX New Zealand is a leading UX and IA conference hosted by Optimal Workshop, that brings together industry professionals for three days of thought leadership, meaningful networking and immersive workshops. 

At UX New Zealand 2023, we featured some of the best and brightest in the fields of user experience, research and design. A raft of local and international speakers touched on the most important aspects of UX in today’s climate for service designers, marketers, UX writers and user researchers.

These speakers are some of the pioneers leading the way and pushing the standard for user experience today. Their experience and perspectives are invaluable for those working at the coalface of UX, and together, there’s a tonne of valuable insight on offer. 

Watch our speakers from this year’s UX New Zealand conference