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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

iconic literacy

... what we are seeing, particularly since the advent of computers, is not so much a new way of thinking as a new form of literacy --- iconic literacy. In many respects, the new media have reintroduced us to the rich world of pictorial icons and memorization that dominated the preliterate world. An icon is more than a picture or drawing because it is functional and is used to perform some task. You just have to look at your computer screen desktop, your cell phone, your BlackBerry, or any computer game to recognize the extent to which icons permeate our world and our thinking. In contrast to adults, who have to struggle to remember what all these icons mean and do, young children are preliterate and have an intuitive grasp of, and memory for, icons. This intuitive iconic literacy may be one of the reasons children take so readily to electronic media. Whether this form of literacy supports, inhibits, or has no effect on print literacy is yet to be determined.

From The Power of Play, David Elkind, Ph.D.

This helps to explain the youthful advantage to figuring out icons and the hesitancy of adults to interact with the same icons.

It also raises questions on how you can introduce new icons. The icon needs to be in the context to be used. It needs to be representative of the action you must take and also indicate the results you will get. That is, do this and you will get what you want (search results, next page, bigger picture, etc.)

This is where design, research, understanding the user, and the situation will definitely come in to play before hand. If you rush this, you'll fail and maybe loose the chance at winning the user.

On the other hand, working with some "friendly" users can help to figure it out before putting it out for the "real" test.

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Comments on "iconic literacy"


Anonymous Blaine Collins said ... (6:45 PM) : 

Another great read Steve - thanks.

I think the flatter world is also increasing use of icons, because they help overcome language barriers. Icons have been used in European tourist spots for many years, but I don't know how much that preceded the PC.

Good advice on creating new icons. I sometimes find gadgets with arcane icons that still aren't meaningful after I read the user manual to learn their meanings. Makes you wonder what they were sm..., er, thinking.


Blogger Steve Sherlock said ... (9:09 PM) : 

The other user interface approach I want to investigate Blaine is that of games. Most electronic games don't require a user manual. You pick up the mouse or joystick and your off to the races. Bringing more of the "game" approach to a user interface should be helpful to the users.


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