Thursday, February 2, 2012

Symbols - Am I Getting Old? Fast?

I fear that the infusion of new symbols in today's society may be leaving me in the dust.

But let me develop this concern in a logical manner for you.

A few months ago, I was troubleshooting some computer problem that my parents were having.  Forgive me, I forget the exact nature, but it probably had something to do with iTunes or playing music on my mom's cellphone or something.  So, take a look at the below picture: do you immediately know what the symbols represent?

I remember saying to my mom, "Now, press the 'pause' button."
"Where's 'pause'?" she responded.

It struck me that the Reverse / Play / Pause / Fast Forward symbols that have become second nature to most people in my generation may not be universally recognized.  I only vaguely knew what the symbols meant from my 1975-era Panasonic Take-N-Tape, and that knowledge may not have transferred to those born before 1960.

But those symbols aren't bad.  Perhaps I'm biased, but you can pretty quickly figure out what the symbols mean: they are simple shapes that represent relatively simple actions.  But in today's complex, multifunctional world, symbols are losing their utility.

How about this one?
If you haven't been indoctrinated through the use of iMacs, XBoxes, and countless other electronica, you would have no idea that thing thing means "Power."  Some smug engineer is probably very happy with himself somewhere, comfortable in his clever mixing of the old "0" and "1" that used to be painted on rocker switches from Olden Times.

I specifically say "him" because there is no way that the fairer sex would dream up something as convoluted as today's "power" button.  Seriously; look at that thing that represents Power today.  How on earth do you describe it to someone who may be looking at a bank of buttons and is trying to turn the thing on? "Hit the button that has the circle on it that kind of has a vertical line going through it, and is surrounded by a bigger circle..."  No way.

But that's just one button.  We now come back to the original purpose of this post, which is that I'm getting lost in today's proliferation of symbols -- and the computer engineer's penchant for favoring these obscure symbols over WORDS.

This is a screen shot from my web Gmail account.
My eye is immediately drawn to the top row of buttons.

  • Where is the Reply? Or the Reply All?  Or the Forward, for heaven's sake?
  • What does that arrow to the left mean?
  • What does that picture of a box with a down arrow do, and how is it different from the other folder with a down arrow?
  • Where are the words to tell me what each button does?

For the last bullet, I admit they do have tooltips that pop up when you hover your mouse over them.  But, come on, they have *tons* of real estate up there, and I hate having to scrub the mouse over each button just to find out what its function is.  Adding a few words would not mar the appearance at all, and would markedly improve the usability of their product.

It's not elegant; it's too clever by half.  I pick on Gmail because it most recently irked me, but I see this "proliferation of symbols" everywhere.  I worry that, since many of us are not the OMGLikeTotallyTweenWTFBBQ24/7 persona that peruses this stuff all day, we're getting left behind.

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