Many designers believe that you should always label your icons, so users know what they mean. This advice seems sensible, but it isn’t always optimal. There are cases when it’s better not to label them and allow users to learn what those icons mean. After they understand them, they’ll be able to use the interface faster than before.
A research study discovered that users searched significantly faster when items used icons instead of text labels. The reason this is possible is that icon recognition results in a quicker visual search than label reading. The difference in search time increases when the number of items on the screen increases.
The reaction time for a set of fifteen items was twice as great in text search than in icon search. More labels together mean users have to read and process so many characters. With icons only, they can find their target item simply through visual recognition. Visual recognition occurs at a glance, while reading requires more cognitive processing.
However, visual recognition is useless if users don’t know what the icons mean. They first need to learn the icon language before they can benefit from visual recognition speed. Therefore, there’s an initial learning curve when using an icons-only approach. But after getting past the learning curve, the user’s search speed becomes faster and more intuitive.
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