Why icons should have labels

A brightly coloured abstract painting consisting of painbrush lines going in all directions. That's why icons should have labels.
Icons are like abstract paintings – they need labels

Digital designers are great at creating icon puzzles for users. They make a good guessing game until you learn what they represent. We see icons everywhere – on microwaves, washing machines, and of course, apps. Like abstract paintings, icons have different meanings for different people. We might like ambiguity in art, but not on our smart phones. That’s why icons need labels. 

Icons are used as a way to save space, or where space for instruction is limited. But designers make a lot of assumptions about previous experience with instructions. Hampus Sethfors explains that saving space at the expense of usability is not the way to go.

In his Axesslab article, Sethfors uses the example of trying to download a TED Talk on a smart phone for viewing later. He explains why icons are ruining interfaces and that icons need labels otherwise users give up and become unsatisfied with the app. Sethfors also uses Instagram, Gmail, and Apple apps as examples of what not to do. He goes on to look at icons on a washing machine dial, and then to icons that really work. You can really see the difference in the examples shown below.

Example of icons without labels.
Icons without titles
Example of Icons with titles
Icons with labels






A related article from Axesslab is how to improve web page content. It shows practical examples of how to improve accessibility and how to avoid simple pitfalls. 

The Australian Network on Disability has a blog page on writing accessible social media posts.  

There is more ICT information on this website. 


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