Thursday, August 12, 2010

Do App icons have to be square?

To be square means being conventional and boring and there is something slightly boring about today’s mobile phone user interfaces. What was clearly influenced by the icon usage on personal computers became the norm for mobile phones and most application interfaces on today’s phones are matrixes of square icons - or more often pages and pages of square icons! As screen resolutions are getting better, the squares have become more colorful and even ‘3D’ and some nearly sparkle – which all makes for a nice visual effect. Critics call this eye candy, but it works as long as you have a relatively limited set of applications. By using colors, symbols and characters it is certainly possible to create a thousand different icons that our eyes can easily distinguish between. But beyond that – now that we are in the 200,000 range it becomes more difficult.

One solution is to make the icons active so that a descriptor window pops up when we navigate past the icon. This eliminates any constraints as far as describing and branding the application – but without that ‘pop up window’ – it is difficult to quickly glance at icons and remember what they do. What can be done?

Sometimes the answer is simpler than the question appears. If we give up the square 1:1 ratio icons and replace them with rectangular 3:1 icons we can suddenly start to put text in the icons or mix logos with text. As our human mind is used to reading text the ability to clearly read, say 2 lines of 15 characters each, removes all limitations on icon recognition and makes the user experience much better. So instead of recognizing and remembering a square icon, why not just read the text in a rectangular one! Do such mobile application interfaces exist? Yes, but more about this in a later blog!

App icons do not have to be square – bring out exciting rectangles!

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