In the battle of clarity between icons and labels, labels always win.
In addition to conveying brand personality through color and style, icons must first and foremost communicate meaning in a graphical user interface. Icons are, by definition, a visual representation of an object, action, or idea. If that object, action, or idea is not immediately clear to users, the icon is reduced to mere eye candy — confusing, frustrating, eye candy — and to visual noise that hinders people from completing a task.
A user’s understanding of an icon is based on previous experience. Due to the absence of a standard usage for most icons, text labels are necessary to communicate the meaning and reduce ambiguity.
Previously I wrote about clarity being the most important characteristic of a great interface. Let’s talk about icons now. They’re an essential part of many user interfaces. The thing is: more often than not, they break clarity. Pictograms have been in use since the early days of mankind. They are often seen as the first expressions of a written language. Some non-literate cultures still use them today as their main medium of written communication.
Moreover, an icon can often replace a long descriptive group of words. As screens get smaller, this is much welcomed. But herein lies the design trap, because most icons are unclear. They make people think. What good has a beautiful interface if it’s unclear? Hence it’s simple: only use an icon if its message is a 100% clear to everyone. Never give in.
I hope all of this made clear that icons can easily break the most important characteristic of a good user interface: clarity. So be very careful, and test! And when in doubt, always remember this: the best icon is a text label.