Icons: Global UX Considerations Revisited and Translators without Borders

I previously raised the issue of how context of use influences our perceptions of icons, and how globalization “best practices” and guidance about icons and graphics that we read on the web sometimes discounts context to the detriment of user experience.

One great example is the use of the Facebook Like icon.

Facebook 'Like' Button. A Thumbs Up to Global Cultural Design Considerations?
Facebook ‘Like’ Button. A Thumbs Up to Global Cultural Design Considerations?

Usually, we would be told to run a mile from body parts like this from a global design perspective, although the use of a thumbs up or thumbs down icon is frequently encountered in social media applications to indicate positive or negative user reactions to a subject.

Now, research from the Oracle Applications User Experience team, presented at the Oracle Usability Advisory Board meeting in Europe recently, confirms that use of the thumbs up and down icon, and some emotions (smileys to indicate happy or sad emotions) not traditionally associated with enterprise applications design, is acceptable to the vast majority of users, worldwide.

The pervasive, global use of the Internet and social media applications (Facebook in particular I would guess) and the nature of work and enterprise applications use (English as a language of business, globalization and outsourcing of work, multilingual operations, less distinction between personal and work life and technology, and so on) have influenced this acceptance.

You can probably think of other icons that might now be acceptable in places that a few years ago would not have been. Find the comments…

That said, the message from the research is clear: Don’t make assumptions about users or global markets. Research and test with real users in real situations doing real tasks. And do it again… and again… and again…. in real target markets, globally. It’s not hard.

On a related note, I love these clean water icons by way of the Noun Project (@nounproject).

Latrine clean water icon from The Noun Project Iconathon.
Latrine clean water icon from The Noun Project Iconathon. Image referenced from Flickr.

An excellent example of iconic context of use, they remind us of the importance of being able to clearly communicate development-related and health-critical information to those who need it, and volunteering where you can to make life better for everyone.

On that point, why not do something extra nice for Christmas, or the season that’s in it if you prefer, and support the Translators without Borders program.

Happy Christmas all!

Update (18-Oct-2013): The research informing the findings on the “Like” icon and others is now published as a chapter in a book on human-computer interaction (HCI).

Ultan Ó Broin
Ultan Ó Broin (@localization), is an independent UX consultant. With three decades of UX and L10n experience and outreach, he specializes in helping people ensure their global digital transformation makes sense culturally and also reflects how users behave locally. Any views expressed are his own. Especially the ones you agree with.


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