Aside from petty discussions on whether Google is evil or not, design-wise it’s an exciting time to watch the evolution of their products. Services across the board are being redesigned, some from the ground-up. There are even traces of an emerging consistency between the web-services and the Android operating system.
One trend in particular I’m following with great interest, and that is the move from text-labels to icons. Here’s Gmail:
It’s interesting because Google used to be a bastion of usability, and having only icons goes against what I’ve learned on the matter (which is that icon + text label reads best, only text label reads okay, icon only reads the least). So why did Google do this?
Google’s a big company. They’re known for being data-driven. So much, in fact, that they were once criticized for A/B testing shades of blue. Which means unless Larry Page has uprooted every previous principle the company was founded on (which I doubt), I’m pretty sure they’re watching the numbers on this one, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in the results on their icon vs. text-label A/B tests. The fact that the icons are still there in Gmail tells me that either the negative impact of icon-only navigation was negligible, or that the decision to go with icons only was forced through despite.
Icon-only navigation can be gorgeous, sure, and well-designed icons or icons based on established metaphors can be really easy to read. The trash-can, for example, is hard to get wrong. But surely some actions can’t easily be translated to icons only? Here’s the Android 4 camera app:
In the above screen capture, I’ve opened up the photo configuration pane. From left — the ellipsis means “more settings”, “SCN” is short for “scene”, the plus/minus is “exposure”, the “AW” is “white balance” set to “auto”, and the lightning is “flash mode” set to off. The icons are gorgeous, but some of them don’t read very well. Particulary SCN means they threw in the towel on an icon.
So where did the whole “icons first” trend start? Android, maybe. From the brand new design guide:
Action bar icons are graphic buttons that represent the most important actions people can take within your app. Each one should employ a simple metaphor representing a single concept that most people can grasp at a glance.
You should really head over to the design guide, the icons really are beautiful, and they are a core aspect of Android 4 apps. To put it briefly: Android 4 apps rely heavily on the action-bar. The action-bar is a bar across the top of the operating system. On phones it features an app icon and app name on the left, and as many icon-buttons as there’s room for on the right. If there are more buttons than there’s room for, these buttons go in to the “action overflow” button, which is the small ellipsis. Click the ellipsis and the icons are shown in a dropdown menu by their text-label counterparts. It’s discussed at length on the Android Developers blog.
As beautiful as icons can be, is the lack of text-labels sacrificing usability? Here’s Photoshop Touch for Android:
Compare and contrast with desktop Photoshop and the UI is a far cry. Obviously the two apps are no-where near feature parity, but UI-wise the difference is stark. The Android app relies on the clean, uncluttered iconography whereas the desktop app fills the top of system-bar with text-labelled dropdown menus.
I really don’t know what’s best. On the one hand, icons certainly make for a prettier UI. If screen real-estate is at a premium, icons can be smaller than text-labels, and the uniform size can make them easier to fit in a clean grid. Icons need no translation either, which is nice. On the other hand, a text label can say what the button does. Right there. On the button.