Yes, Icons Need Text Labels

One question we commonly get asked is whether icons within a user interface need a text label, and the answer is yes. And here are a few reasons why icons are often designed around some sort of metaphor. For example, a paper clip to reference adding an attachment or a folded paper airplane to share a note with someone determining an icon, meaning relies on users understanding that metaphor and seeing how it relates to their task. So because users may not get your clever reference, the text label really is necessary to clear up any possible confusion. Users are less likely to click on things they don’t understand. Text labels are especially important for icons whose meaning is ambiguous and used to signify different meanings in different interfaces. Take, for example, the star and heart icons.

Depending on the context, clicking on either of these symbols can add an item to your list of favorites. Navigate you to that list of favorites, indicate that something is popular or highly rated, or take you to that overall list of featured or popular items when there are so many alternate meanings. For a single icon, a text label is required to clear up that ambiguity and communicate clearly to the user what they should expect in that context.

Hey, what about this company? They don’t show labels for their icons. True, sometimes big companies don’t always have text labels for their icons. But how can you tell whether or not that’s helping or hurting them?

You can’t. So don’t assume that just because a large company is presenting things in a certain way that it’s necessarily the best or right way. Keep in mind that large, well-known companies often have a loyal user base and those users may be using the UI often enough that they’re willing and able to learn through repetition what an unlabeled icon represents. But are your users loyal? Do they frequent your user interface enough to learn and remember what your custom unlabeled icon means for most of us know? So don’t take the chance that people will overlook or misunderstand your icons. Just label them.

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