Icons are designed to help users navigate user interfaces. Nowhere are they more prevalent than on mobile dashboards.
Dashboards contain multiple icons in a compact area. This increases the user’s cognitive load for accomplishing tasks. If your grouped icons aren’t optimized for visual search, users can find it hard and slow to navigate your app.
When users are searching through a group of icons, they need to be able to recognize their target icon quickly. If you want your icons to have a fast visual search, there are a few design factors you should optimize.
Detailed Vs. Simplified Icons
The more detail on an icon, the more visual noise it has. Visual noise compounds when users view detailed icons grouped together. Searching and targeting an icon takes more time because the user is overstimulated with each icon’s internal detail of lines, shapes, and shades.
In contrast, a group of simplified icons has lower visual noise which allows users to search and target icons faster. The internal details of each icon is minimal, which makes the icon shape more distinct and quicker to recognize.
Research found that simplified icons are faster to recognize than detailed icons. However, if simplified icons are made too simple, they become unrecognizable. There are certain characteristic cues icons need for recognition.
Another study confirms that simplified icons provide a faster search than detailed ones, especially at larger sizes. In the study, detailed icons were slower than blank generic ones because they added visual noise to the interface.
Smaller Vs. Larger Icons
What also affects icon search speed is figure to background ratio when they’re placed on a background shape. A low figure to background ratio makes icons small and indistinguishable at a macro view. This forces users to zoom in on the icons at a micro view to tell them apart, which takes more time and effort.
A high figure to background ratio makes the icons larger and more distinguishable at a macro view. Users don’t need to zoom in on the icons because they can distinguish them at a glance. This allows for a faster search due to shorter eye fixations and less cognitive effort.
A study found that icons with at least a 50% figure to background ratio improved search times and were preferred by most users. It also found that icons placed on circle pads (circular background shapes) improved search times.
Dark on Light Vs. Light on Dark Icons
Icons with a positive display polarity have a dark color on a light background. They yield a slower visual search than icons with a negative display polarity (light on dark background).
In the image, the corresponding icons in both dashboards are the same. But the icons with negative polarity appear slightly larger and more clear than the positive polarity icons. Greater visual clarity allows users to search and target icons faster.
Research found that most users prefer negative polarity icons over positive polarity icons. This is due to the higher contrast of the icon’s outer shape and internal detail.
Most Preferred Colors
Icon color can also speed up visual search by drawing attention and making a target stand out. Users are able to recognize icons with familiar colors quicker than black and white ones.
The same study found that blue, green, and red are the most preferred colors for icons, while purple, orange, yellow are the least preferred. The different meanings of icons did not affect icon color preferences.
It’s interesting to note that blue, green, and red are the primary colors for computer screens and other light source devices. This makes them appear more pure, while purple, orange, and yellow appear more faded or washed out. The pureness and familiarity of blue, green, and red make them the most optimal icon colors.
Lost in the Details
Detail and size are the two most important factors to keep in mind when working with grouped icons. The color and background of icons are also important, but more case dependent.
For instance, your app may have specific brand colors you’re required to use. Or your app may have to use a light or dark background for your type of content. Whatever the case is, treat these recommendations as guidelines.
These guidelines not only apply to dashboards, but any type of navigation where icons are used. The more icons that are grouped together, the harder it is to search for an icon. Lighten the user’s cognitive load so that they can find what they’re looking for without getting lost in the details.