Our eyes are a powerful instrument of getting great deal of information in split seconds. What is more, we do not need to apply too much effort: most of data is absorbed unconsciously. And that puts the issue of visual perception in the top significant concerns in the sphere of design, especially in product design which solves user’s problems and satisfies needs.
The aspect of speed
Visual perception is one of the most productive and quick ways through which people are able to obtain information and get it processed by the brain. It influences so many aspects of life that neglecting the issue while creating products for users would be extremely unwise. That is why the aspect of applying visual elements of high functionality in the interfaces such as icons and their impact on general efficiency of the product has been an actual topic in global design community for a long time.
In the scientific research about visual perception, after theoretic analysis and the set of practical experiments, A. Santella made a conclusion: “The fact that eye tracking is sufficient for some level of abstraction in our context makes an interesting point. It suggests that the understanding underlying abstraction, and perhaps other artistic judgments, is not some mysterious ability of a visionary few, but a basic visual competence. Though not everyone can draw, everyone it seems can control abstraction in a computer rendering.” People in general have incredibly broad abilities to perceive visual marks, recognize and proceed data even transformed in images of high level of abstraction. That is the important fact designers widely use to improve usability and navigability of their solutions.
If the only aspect a designer is interested in using icons is speed, then the idea in the original question will work positively. Yes, in vast majority of cases people fix and percieve pictorial elements like icons and illustrations faster than words. Great proportion of users are visually-driven creatures by nature, so the following mechanisms of visual perception often work and should be considered in design process:
- human eye fixes images much faster that written text
- as psychologists claim, people need about 1/10 of a second to get a general perception of a visual scene or element (that speed is indeed impossible for textual items)
- visuals are transmitted to the brain much faster and important pieces of information are often fixed by brain as visual images even if they were obtained via text perception
- images are less vulnerable in combination with the background and surrounding elements while text is highly dependent on the aspect of readability
- images have a tendency to stick better in long-term memory which means that in interactions with the interface people will not need to process and remember more data than it’s really necessary, so interactions get faster.
The aspect of meaning
Anyway, the decision on applying icon, text or both in the layout should be based on thoughtful analysis of the target audience and understanding the goals and conversions which have to be obtained via the interaction.
Reasons for applying icons in the interface
Summing up the points mentioned above, we can define several popular reasons of using icons in the interface:
- speeding up data perception
- enhancing memorability of the element via visual images
- improving navigation with visual markers
- saving up space on the screen or page when the long words or phrases are replaced with icons
- supporting copy material and providing its additional visual explanation
- supporting general stylistic concept and its harmonic expression in broad perspective.
Points to consider
Obviously, it is impossible to satisfy any user and consider every existing cognitive scheme, but still there are some general aspects which have to be thought out in the aspect of design with high visual perception:
- target audience (physical abilities, age, cultural background, general development and education level)
- typical user’s reading skills
- typical environment of product use
- level of global or local product spread
- level of recognition for the chosen graphics
- level of distraction/concentration provided by the graphics
Diverse issues of visual perception have been an object of scientific and applied research for many decades. In terms of design issues, we could recommend the following articles for those who would like to know more :
What Designers Should Know About Visual Perception and Memory – the article by VanseoDesign analyzing basic aspects of visual perception in design perspective;
Design Principles: Visual Perception And The Principles Of Gestalt – the article by SmashingMagazine considering the principles of Gestalt theory essential for design practice;
Studies Confirm the Power of Visuals in eLearning – the set of ideas in Shift’s eLearning Blog based on the analysis of visual perception in interaction;
37 Visual Content Marketing Statistics You Should Know in 2016 – the article by HubSpot about trends on visual content with some stats;
From Icons Perception to Mobile Interaction – the scientific article about icons perception in mobile interfaces;
Visual Perception – the list of books on general aspects of visual perception which can possibly be helpful for those who are interested in the topic;
The Art of Seeing: Visual Perception in design and evaluation of non-photorealistic rendering – the theses of scientific research by Anthony Santella.
About the Author: Marina Yalanska is content manager and writer for Tubik Studio, tech/design blogger and researcher