Skip to content Skip to navigation

Survey 1/2015-2016 results

The first survey data set (1a) has been collected and the form is now closed. I have gathered a first analysis of the results here.

Demographic overview

I received 119 survey submissions, 79 of which were from Finnish respondents. In all there were participants with 22 different nationalities ranging from United States (7) and Germany (3) to Iran (1) and China (3). 

58% of the participants were male and 42% Female. 

The majority of the respondents (49%) were 30 to 40 years old, with the entire range being between 10 and 57 years.

Figure 1: Age groups

The participants were asked to describe their skills in using digital devices on a five step range: very good, good, average, poor, or very poor. 66% described their skills as very good, 28% good, and the rest 6% average.

They were also asked how often they found it difficult to understand the meaning of interface icons or buttons. This was also measured on a five step range: very rarely, rarely, occasionally, often, or very often.

29% replied very rarely, 40% rarely, 29% occasionally, and 2% often. So it seems, that even skillful users sometimes encounter problems in understanding interface icons.

Importance of context

The survey asked the participants to classify each icon through two questions:

  1. Is the icon concrete or abstract?
  2. Is the icon logical or arbitrary?

In addition to this, they were asked to shortly name what they thought each of the icons stands for, what is its meaning or function. The purpose of this question was to verify, that the user had correctly recognized the icon. It was clear from the answers, that some of the icons could be understood in a variety of ways, and others were not always recognized at all. The lack of context is one important factor in this. For instance the magnifying glass was recognized as both a search and magnifying tool. Similarly, the cross icon that stands for closing or deleting, was also recognized as the symbol for irritating substances. 

90% accuracy

However, in order to compare the responses in a reliable way, these variations need to be eliminated as much as possible. Therefore, I have ignored all the responses where the user has either not recognized the icon, or has thought of an alternative meaning for it. Consider the cross icon. If a user understands it as a symbol for irritating substance, his or her response on the question: "Is the icon logical or arbitrary?", is not comparable to the other users, who recognized it as the close/delete icon.


Figure 2: close icon

The total number of icon classifications was 2380 (119 participants x 20 icons). Out of these, there were 242 cases where the icon had not been correctly recognized. Therefore, 89.8% percent of the data was valid, and this part of it can be analyzed further.

One of the main motivations for this study was to find out how strong correlation there is in concrete icons being dominantly logical, and abstract ones being arbitrary. In figure 3 the icons have been placed on a scatter map where the y-axis shows, what percent of the answers classified the icons as logical. The x-axis accordingly shows, what percent of the answers classified the icons as concrete. Table 1 also shows the classification summary.

The differentiation between concrete and abstract icons is very strong. All of the icons are either below 14.4% or above 81% concrete. The differentiation in logical versus arbitrary is not as clear. There is a cluster of strong logical icons, among which the strongest icons were trash can (97.5%), cut (94.1%), and printer (91.3%). There is a very clear correlation with concrete icons being logical. 

Abstract and arbitrary

In abstract icons, there appear to be two clusters. One comprises of strongly arbitrary icons. The other cluster of icons is above 58% in the logical scale. This group consists of the arrow icons of the survey: play, fast forward, rewind, and reload. It is clear, that arrows are considered as abstract representations. Yet they are so commonly used, that users intuitively understand their meaning. The origin of the arrow symbol most likely derives from the concrete archer's arrow object. So the case seems to be, that the appearance of the arrow has just become so simplified and abstracted, that it is no longer considered concrete. 

Figure 3: Distribution of icon classifications. Click to open interactive chart.

Arbitrary and concrete

In this icon set there were no occurences of icons that are clearly arbitrary and concrete at the same time. The paste icon comes closest to this, being 81% concrete and only 58,3% logical. It would seem, that icons are most commonly in this group, if the metaphor or descriptive relation of the icon (signifier) and its signified is weak from the beginning, or becomes unclear over time. Indeed, why would a designer choose to use a concrete icon to represent something that it has no obvious connection to.

It's hard to know the entire logic and designer's intent that is behind the selection of some interface icons. In complex software interfaces, concrete yet arbitrary icons sometimes seem to occur. Consider the magic wand tool in Photoshop, which is used to select pixels based on tone and color. Perhaps the use of this tool is supposed to be like magic, but certainly the metaphor is weak if not non-existent. When the signified function is so abstract, that there is no possible metaphor or other connection to a real world object, the designer can either create a completely abstract icon, or select a concrete object that will thenceforth be used to represent this subject. In either case, it is only through conditioning and learning, that the icon will establish its meaning.

This is the first summary of the main points of the data I have collected. I shall later follow up with more analysis of the relevance of these results to my study.

Icon% Concrete% Logical
Calculator99,190,6
Close X2,336,8
Copy83,177,1
Cut96,694,1
Eject10,736,9
Fast forward14,365,5
File9476,1
Folder98,292
Paste8158,3
Pause723,5
Play14,458,5
Power9,124,2
Printer98,191,3
Record9,120,2
Reload1359,3
Rewind14,365,5
Save9470,9
Search87,881,6
Stop4,821,2
Trash can99,297,5


Table 1: Classification summary

The content of this site, if not otherwise stated, is shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License.

Privacy policy