Visual cues in interfaces

notepadpp_icon Notepad++ old icon Yesterday I started up all that mess of software, that is essential for my work/fun/whatever process. And suddenly I was unable to find Notepad++. I knew it was there, knew I had just killed few more lines of code from google charts class.

I didn’t know it looked nothing like day before that. Icon got changed.

What in the icon

Icon is probably most distinguishing visual cue for software. It defines how it would look:

  • in start menu;
  • on desktop;
  • launched on taskbar;
  • minimized to tray;
  • ready to be switched to with Alt+Tab;
  • as visual hint in numerous launchers;
  • as document type on files created with it.

While it doesn’t matter much what exactly icon is, it matters a lot that is it original and easy to distinguish.

Visual feedback

While I think bulk of modern users could really benefit from better keyboard/hotkey skills, there is a reason we do not spend most of time in console.

Console has no visual distinction. If you type fast you can issue commands fast. But even if you read fast such wall of text is still hard to process.

Graphical interface as whole creates visual anchors. Change of anchor, such as new icon I had encountered, can show that it is easy to become overly dependent on it.

Visual anchors make it much easier to work with unfamiliar interface. Do we still need them after interface became familiar? Is subconscious mental overhead of look-click-look-click loop better than hotkey?

Clicking patterns

While we remember distinct visual clues no less important is how we get used to their placement. Want to spoil someone’s mood – sort icons on their desktop (that’s why my desktops have no icons :).

When Windows got “smart” with showing and hiding items in menus I had stopped using menus. Knowing and using precise positions of element makes much faster experience that selecting out of most used set.

Some launchers are built explicitly to make use of patterns – fixed grids, circular shapes and the like.

Again, when does pattern of clicks is no longer beneficial and becomes poor replacement for shorter method? As for me – if used multiply times each day.


Visual clues are essential for getting used to new things. But I feel we tend to forget that gradual learning and daily usage are different processes.

How often do you perform series of multiply clicks just because you got used to it? How often do you minimize everything to look for something on desktop?

Spend some time to notice these routines and you might be surprised how many of them you can cut or improve.

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  • kelltic #

    I once lost every favicon on my computer. It shouldn't have mattered that much. I remember DOS days. For the better part of a year (that's how long they were gone) my computer life became a little more than a quest to retrieve my precious tiny icons. I was obsessed. Like any addict, I periodically swore off. I mean, how much power should a little graphical hint have? But soon, I'd be back posting on tech sites and digging through my system, irritating my friends, and on and on, and on, getting myself nothing but more frustration. Whereas, once upon a time, my computer had been the love of my life, it had become an errant lover - and ya know how that is. One morning, I remembered - who knows why - a little program that I'd once had installed on my system and - who knows why - I decided to reinstall it. The instant I did, all my favicons reappeared. Life was once again gratifyingly colorful. As for clicking, well, I do more than I used to. I once hardly ever used a menu bar, but I use so many different applications now, it has gotten too hard to remember hot keys for all of them. Still, I use my little launcher - that requires NO clicking, only a ; and whatever short keyword I've fed it - to open most of my programs and many of my files. I have a few icons on my desktop, but they're really folders that hold shortcuts to different types of applications. I use the launcher to open them, but after that, yeah, I click (on the favicon of my choice. My one problem now is that I'd love to get rid of the program that destroyed my favicons in the first place but I don't dare uninstall it again. :(
  • Rarst #

    @kelltic Favicons you mean in browser or regular application icons? Interesting issue, what was that program supposed to do anyway? My one problem now is that I’d love to get rid of the program that destroyed my favicons in the first place but I don’t dare uninstall it again. :( Brutal delete and clean registry afterwards? :) btw how is blog working for you lately? You hadn't got to me after you last complained in comments. :)
  • kelltic #

    Did I call them the wrong thing? Well, I told you I am illiterate. If I say "icons" everyone thinks I'm referring to desktop icons. It was the universal destruction of all the tiny 16x16 icons that once populated the Start Menu, all of Windows Explorer, and all the Open Dialog boxes on my system. The only survivors were Word, Excel, and Access icons. Otherwise, there was only that one little generic Windows icon for all my programs and their files. They didn't even display in Control Panel's Folder Options > File Types and my attempts to reinstate them from the applet failed - repeatedly. Do you begin to understand my pain? The program, UserInfo Tip, displayed whatever comments I chose to make about a particular file whenever I ran the mouse pointer over it in Windows Explorer, or wherever the file showed up. Instead of Windows little yellow information box, I got to read my own comments. I loved the @$! thing. I only uninstalled it because I thought it was making my computer act a little odd. After the uninstall the oddities went away but took the icons with them. Brutal delete, loses icons again. The support guy from AksLabs tried to help me but #1, we have a small language barrier and #2, the instructions he gave involved using the Command line and I don't know how to undo Command line stuff, only registry changes. Or, gee, what might happen if I try to do what he suggested? Let's face it. I am a coward. I do not want a repeat performance. As to your website: I am a complainer. I know it. I'm trying to mend my ways and had decided not to mention it again. Not really. I never intended to complain, only let you know what was happening because, assuming I'm not the only one, it can affect your lucrative little business :). Truth is, it got worse. So for a couple of weeks I only checked in on Wed and Thurs because those were the only days anything new showed up. However - last week - all week - blogs and comments were only a day behind. Same for this week. A great improvement, and I'm back everyday now - to read yesterday's news :) Lucky you.
  • kelltic #

    UPDATE. My comment showed up IMMEDIATELY. I was so surprised, I shut down my browser and came back again to see if it was really there - and it is.
  • Rarst #

    @kelltic Sounds like that app bites into system really deep, I prefer to stay away from such if I can. only let you know what was happening because, assuming I’m not the only one Problem is - I can't objectively register your issue, and not a single person in this time had reported anything remotely similar. blogs and comments were only a day behind Depends in what day you are. :) Blog is set to GMT+2 so depending on your time zone dates may seem off to you. My best guess is your browser (Firefox 2 according to logs, upgrade that thing already?) has issues with cache I use (as I suspected). Cache plugin was updated recently and major change was serving non-cached pages to those who had left comments and have cookies from blog from that. If that helped that means your browser was for some reason choosing not to re-download page even if had long expired and was actually updated on server.
  • kalmly #

    I'm on Pacific/California time. Same thing was occurred with IE. At first I didn't want to update FF. Then, when I tried, the attempt was unsuccessful. BUT - All is good now with the webpage.
  • Rarst #

    @kalmly Thanks for info. Guess there were some issues with older version of caching plugin after all. Hope they are gone, I'd really like all maintenance sorted out for new theme launch.
  • The DataRat #

    "How often do you minimize everything to look for something on desktop ?" Actually, ~not~ very often ! Quick Launch in XP/Vista obviates the necessity for clearing running applications from the desktop to get at program icons. To augment that, I coughed-up the twenty bucks for True Launch Bar. http://www.truelaunchbar.com/ It's steroids for Vista's (or XP's) Quick Launch. [ Sadly, there's ~no~ Win 7 version ...as Win 7 doesn't have Quick Launch. ] "make use of patterns" Position of icons is equally -if not more- important than visual design of icons ! We remember icons by location at least as much as by what they look like. The third factor (after appearance and position) being labeling. And it's the ~least~ important of the three. The DataRat .
  • Rarst #

    @DataRat I never like quick launch. Icons are tiny and it eats most valuable taskbar space. Need to take a look at Win7 version, I think it does have some revamped version of quick launch btw.
  • The DataRat #

    "Icons are tiny and it eats most valuable taskbar space." Another reason I adore True Launch Bar: It has the option of variable sized icons ...including large ones. As for the space issue: I place my taskbar on the right-edge of my screen. This makes the running programs list far more readable. I also extend the taskbar three inches from the right screen edge (on "auto-hide"). Which makes for a lot more space, but out of the way until you need it. Finally, True Launch Bar allows you to have Quick Launch icons that fold out into tiered menu's. A cascading menu which can have sub-menu. Thus one categorical icon in Quick Launch can contain numerous actual program icons. Greatly minimizing visible icons while ~increasing~ the number of applications you may access ! "Need to take a look at Win7 version, I think it does have some revamped version of quick launch" Microsoft got rid of Quick Launch in Windows 7. You can "pin" icons on the taskbar, BUT IN THE SAME AREA AS RUNNING PROGRAMS. Thus there is no discrete, segregated Quick Launch area in Win 7. PC Magazine has a hack for getting Quick Launch in Win 7... http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2339493,00.asp When I eventually upgrade to Win 7 (next PC that I buy) I'll look into this. The DataRat .
  • Rarst #

    @DataRat I had tried side-placement of taskbar in the past but didn't like it. And can't stand auto-hiding things, they kinda annoy me.