As software and apps become more user-friendly and commonly-used icons become universally understood, there is a growing tendency to scrap text.
Microsoft experimented with the minimalist icons-over-text approach in their release of Outlook 1997. As you can see from the toolbar, they left out the text descriptions and as a result non-experienced Outlook users apparently stopped using the toolbar altogether:
Several designs later, with Outlook 2000, they had a rethink and text was added back in:
While more recent designs are less icon-assisted and text has even clearer prominence:
Digital designer Thomas Byttebier makes some excellent points about the importance of using text in his blog here, with the concluding statement being “when in doubt, the best icon is a text label.” He lists a number of extremely popular apps and sites where icons are pretty ambiguous. Take Instagram and Spotify for example. Are people aware of what this icon actually does?
In both cases this in-tray icon is for accessing your inbox and sending direct messages but I think the messaging feature is clearly overlooked in both applications. When I asked friends who have been using the applications for several years whether they were aware of the messaging feature they just looked at me blankly. One said “Oh, that bikini thing”, the other thought it was a basket. So there’s clearly a lack of clarity over the purpose of the icon but whether that’s due to the ambiguous design or a lack of need, I’m not sure. It’s probably a bit of both.
Twitter have also had some issues with ambiguous and non-universal icons, often presuming that users will just intuitively understand what the icons do and sometimes getting it wrong. As a result Twitter’s user growth has actually slowed as new users that are attracted to the site often have a hard time catching on to how it works.
The arrow icon for ‘Reply’, the envelope icon for ‘Message’ and the ellipsis (three dots) ‘More Options’ icon are recognisable but the heart icon for ‘Like’ will only be familiar with people who have used Instagram and other social media. A new user is unlikely to know what the ‘Retweet’ icon does unless they are familiar with Twitter’s basic concepts. It is interesting to note that Twitter have added text labels to the bottom five icons (highlighted in green in the image above) because other than perhaps ‘Messages’ their function is not obvious to the user.
While documentation is sometimes seen as an afterthought in the development process, in my opinion the text and written content is an inherent part of user experience for all software, no matter how intuitive the UI designer thinks his icons are or user-friendly the product is. If you want to avoid ambiguity, text will always be the best way to get the message across to the user.