The Affect of Iconography on a User’s Experience – Part 1 the Psychology of Symbolism in UI


My family and I visited the Crossroads of Civilization exhibit at the Milwaukee Museum the other day.  If you haven’t had a chance to visit the exhibit you should because it really speaks volumes about our attempt throughout the centuries to comprehend complex ideas.

If we think of how we interpret the material world around us it quickly becomes apparent that almost everything represents some form of information. When we grasp this notion, it isn’t a far stretch to consider that to understand the world we live in better we’ve come up with compact ways to represent complex ideas.



Obviously a lot has changed since the pyramid builders of old, but on all accounts the same visual mechanics are at work. Whether it is letters constructed into words on a page that phonetically sound out the idea of a BIRD or a pictographic representation of a physical BIRD the same synaptic and ocular phenomenon is taking place.

One doesn’t have to put on a fedora and leather jacket to see hieroglyphics, in fact we see the ghosts of their impartial use at work when we type emoji’s in our messages.  Why write “happy” when you can send someone an icon.
Happy, feliz, счастлив, 开心,快, Gelukkig, srećan, Heureux


This decoded pictogram transcends ethnic races, languages, and represents a multitude of complex ideas all the while our minds are registering a smiling face.  What’s even more amazing is that our minds register an emotional response to the iconography.

“Iconography, good iconography, strives to convey invisible reality in a visible form.” 
― Peter Pearson

In Part 1 of this blog post we are going to be discussing how the use of icons can positively affect a user’s experience through the concepts of metaphorical affordance and conditioned response.

Like we’ve talked about in previous blog posts building a log of macro user personas that represent a group of individuals helps us to not only understand who we are talking about and what generalized behaviors are similar but also what makes particular groups unique and special.

Questions like:

  • If a user gets confused who will they contact?
  • What is something that would make a person angry or upset if the interface didn’t do it well?
  • How long will a typical user be interacting with the application?

The goal of documenting human behavior inside a workshop focused on current state is then used to help dictate how an interface will ultimately fulfill needs in a future state.  This is in part because from a UI Practitioner’s perspective an application has less to do with colors, themes and branding and more to do with fulfilling needs through usability. 

One of the principles that drives good usability is called Affordance
Usability based on affordance is fairly simple to see running in the wild working incorrectly when we find nicely designed doors in an office building.

Here is an example of a “Norman Door


These types of doors are found everywhere, and as you can see it has pull handles indicating that the door has the interaction of pull to open, while the actual interaction is push to open.  The basic affordance of the door is broken requiring the words PUSH to inform the user what they must do.

Much the same way the broken affordance of a Norman Door functions counter intuitively the icons, symbols and pictograms of a User Interface have a similar psychology when used incorrectly.

This is because while icons and pictograms hold an aesthetic value they also carry an inherent usability because of the affordance that they represent.

You can imagine in the case of a user persona with each behavioral question captured there is the possibility to represent symbolic characteristics that bridge communication barriers.


It’s fairly safe to say what complex ideas or information this icon represents as we’ve all been classically conditioned to respond to this icon.  So we can say that the metaphorical affordance of this icon is high, in that upon clicking the user can assume they will get needs fulfilled that pertains to mail.

But what about this icon?


Aside from representing the concept of climbing into a rocket ship and blasting off to the moon for outer space adventures… You could imagine much like the Norman Door example, in order for this icon to express meaning in a User Interface it would need an explanation or title.
The big take away here is that the aesthetic value of the rocket icon is really nice, but becomes just a pretty picture because it lacks metaphorical affordance in the current context of use.

But what if we only know generalized information about a group of users…?  What if our Q/A sessions haven’t produce enough behavioral information for selecting usable icons in our UI?

To understand how much liberty and the risks taken in UI without having
user persona data let’s take a look at a simple interface.

Spend about 5 seconds looking over the UI below…


If you are someone that deciphered meaning from the icons inside the interface without an explanation, you’ve just created a small positive emotional response.  But if you could not, imagine the assumptions I just took in thinking any reader would be able to understand the interface above…

The idea that perceived usability of any interface is associated by how quickly we ascertain meaning puts weight on deciphering pictographic representation.

OK, Cool… So we pick icons everyone has some preconceived notion of what they represent and we’re good to go… Right?

In theory yes… The big take away here is that as soon as the complexity of an interface increases without having behavioral understanding, the metaphorical affordance degrades and the UI starts to function like a Norman Door.
Let’s take a look at more a complex Interface.
There are 24 visible icons surfaced in the UI Layer.


There are some pictographic or icon problems to look for flagged in yellow:

  • Is the Home tab navigation option the same as the Home Button with icon?
  • If the icon next to the Lists title section is indicating that there is a list below, what does the icon do to the right of the Lists?
  • If the right List icon in the Lists section is for the functionality of sorting, why does the Table section not have the same List icon for sorting?
  • Is that a table icon or a calendar icon?
  • What is the difference between Reports and Forms, as they share the same icon?
  • What is the difference between the book Forms icon and the Forms icon in the top navigation area?

After looking over the dashboard above we come full circle and have the grounds to effectively understand the subtle psychological effects of icon degradation.
While it is true that it is possible to interact with the dashboard above, it is also true that the UI contains subtle pictographic inconsistencies that cause friction in the Usability.

Think about the subtle psychological effects of a Norman Door and how it still functions to open and close, but on some level it causes a negative impact on the overall user’s experience.

If the ultimate goal of a UI Practitioner is the least amount of friction possible than to render an experience with minor flaws hinders User Adoption on a measurable level.

“Simple is hard. Easy is harder. Invisible is hardest.” – Jean-Louis Gassée

In Part 2 of this blog series we will be discussing custom icons and a few extremely handy tools that aid in the creation process.  We will also be discussing the process of creating WebFonts and Symbol Contact Sheets, that can be used to help identify what character codes to use in your CSS.  We will then show the use of the created icons in Responsive Designed SharePoint Wiki project.


Understanding the Psychology of Consumer & User Experience CX/UX

When was the last time you had to organize your thoughts around purchasing a kitchen appliance?
If you’re like me chances are it was an inconvenience only contemplated at the moment of a broken toaster and standing in a department store while being thunderstruck at the vast array of uniform boxes and advertisement.

Whether it’s that fancy toaster we signed up for when we got married, or that ole’ dependable coffee pot we’ve had for a thousand years most of us have some kind of trusty kitchen appliance currently growing old on our counter tops.

Something as simple as a kitchen toaster in the fast paced world of technology today hearkens back to an age when an invention that could change the world consisted of a box with heating coils inside…

A simple machine transfixed with one lever that caused a revolution in the breakfast industry forcing bakers to change their process, mundane condiment makers to create spreadable butter all of which retroactively spurred new types of instant foods like Eggo waffles and Pop-Tarts.

The classic marketing story goes that the 2 slot toaster was eventually replaced with 4 slots and that eventually through rapid consumer demand the slots expanded all the way up to 8.  The consumer market of unfriendly megalith toasters then contracted to more user friendly sizes of 2 and 4 slots and to this day line department store shelves as far as the eye can see.

8-slot toaster 4 slot toaster
The eventual
8-slot toaster…
The fancy 4-slot, that
won over consumers

There is no better example for expressing the psychology of consumerism than the story of simple kitchen appliances.

The theory and typical explanation is that when markets contain products that are similar with slight variation of services and functionality a market is said to have reached a plateau.  Think of cell phones or lawn mowers, or shoes.

Makes sense… If there is a ton of products that all do the same thing its harder to choose the right one.

The questions and answers consumers seek pertaining to which products are better change into something more mysterious inside the vacuum of a market plateau.

What causes someone to buy a product in a sea of similar products that do exactly the same thing?

One of the key answers to this question is Consumer Centric Branding Strategy

Customer centric is a way of doing business with your customers in a way that provides a positive customer experience before and after the sale in order to drive repeat business, customer loyalty and profits.
Steven MacDonald

A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.

Seth Godin

If we internalize what Steven and Seth are talking about Consumer Centricity and Branding are fairly elusive-beasts to catch and contain because they cover many topics that deal with the tribalism of human behavior and perception.

“Why do you like that? Because they do…”

“Who told them to like it? I’m not sure…”

“Wow that’s expensive it must be better…”

“Look… That one is cheaper… It must not be made as well…”

“Look… That really expensive version is on sale today… But only today… Maybe I should buy It”

Okay… So Consumer Centricity sounds the same as User Centricity from a tribal and behavioral standpoint?

Like we’ve talked about in previous Blog Posts User Experience or UX has similarities of a well-crafted Consumer Experience or CX.

Some of the core aspects of Consumer Experiences are that they rely on:

  • Customer Service
  • Advertising
  • Brand Reputation
  • Sales and Process
  • Pricing Fairness
  • Products and Delivery

Whereas some of the core aspects of User Experience rely on:

  • Usability
  • Interaction Design
  • Visual Design Branding and Aesthetic Value
  • Information Architecture
  • Content
  • User Definitions and Research

Notice that Branding fits into the core aspects of both CX and UX.  You could imagine the converging fields looking something like this Venn Diagram as they share aspects of Brand in the middle.


While the Venn Diagram above works well to visualization CX and UX both harnessing Brand it is more accurate to think of them like this.


Hmm, so first we focus on a Consumer Experience and then User Experience?

To understand how to utilize a Consumer Centric process and in what order to effectively execute the many puzzle pieces its first required that we know who are users/consumers are…

Sound familiar?

In previous Blog Posts we’ve talked about Concurrency’s User Definition workshops and how a successful UI and UX strategy can be attained.  We’ve talked about how the process of a UD workshop unearths User Centric data that helps to execute Business Decisions in a User Interface or in the visualization of emotional language tied to a User Experience.

User Centric or Consumer Centric data and how it is expressed and then acted upon is crucial for any CX or UX strategy.

Here are some screen grabs of User Centric data being expressed through a dashboard by a company called CardioLog




The type of data gathered with dashboards like this are used as part of a comprehensive strategy in Concurrency’s Productivity and Collaboration Roadmaps.

While Concurrency’s Collaboration Roadmap strategy is focused more on the aspects of User Experience, Content Migration, Information Architecture and Infrastructure than that of the Advertising and Social facets of Consumer Experiences as you can still see by examining these dashboards a wealth of cross pollinating data is contained therein.

OK, so we’ll go out and purchase an analytic tool… bolt it into our project… and we’re good to go?

The key take away here is in understanding where the Psychology of CX and UX overlap and how any business strategy that includes User Definition workshops helps to round out and explain the simple idea that we are all people/users/human beings first and foremost and that people/users/human beings make decisions not just on facts but on emotions as well and that this single truth is the underlying driver of User and Consumer Experiences.


The psychology of a successful Consumer and User Experience and the direct correlation on successful Brands is something we all know; Its nothing new… It isn’t a coincidence that half the population of the world has an iPhone, or that Super Bowl commercial of the kid recording his family made us cry.  It’s that consumers and users respond to tribal and  emotional connections with human behaviors; it’s woven into our DNA.

There is a famous quote by Steve Jobs and whether you agree with Jobs on all of his miraculous deeds or not it is undeniable the impact he had on the world, innovation and his ability to create unforgettable Brands.

You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology – not the other way around.

– Steve Jobs

In my next Blog Post, I’m going to be shedding the mantle of UI and UX and UD and CX to talk about good ole’ fashioned Illustration and the production of Icons and Fonts.  We will be talking about the process and applications involved to create your own web fonts and how to use them in CSS and HTML.

ReBranding The Harris Tweed Digital Experience – Bringing an Old Brand Into The New World

I love everything that has to do with Harris Tweed, so it was with great pleasure and old school inspiration that I tackled this project. The main design goal was to make something as traditional as the Harris Tweed Brand seem right in a modern User Experience. I went with a pretty basic UI layout using big blocks of single strip, 4 up, 2 column blocks. The look is very minimal so the focus is less on the page design and more on letting the grittiness and textures of the tweed seep into view. The bright colors of the buttons are meant to be over powering attracting the eye through out the UX almost like climbing spikes helping you navigate through the long scrolling page. The type has characteristics of a digital magazine layout with large titles covering classic Harris Tweed script, mixed with a Helvetica Condensed with only about 3 variations of smaller point sizes.

The page has persistent navigation that would scroll with the user, being a quick means to navigate up and down the long page style.




A Momentary Break From Digital – Our Perception & The Way We See The World – Old Post

I was lucky over a month or so ago to escape into the north woods of Wisconsin.  My entire immediate and extended family convened at the once a year summer cabin for a get-together of adventure.

The mornings were full of communal breakfasts, with coffee pots continuously brewing and kids blurting out cerebral fantasy about finding giants and ogres, strange bugs and poisonous mushrooms.

To see children in this state of euphoria and how tired they are at the end of the day is a wondrous sight to behold and it makes you realize how much our perceptions of the world play a key role in our happiness.  Kids have no idea why at 9pm they cannot lift their arms anymore, for them time doesn’t exist and therefore the physical toll and bodily change comes as an unpredictable onset of sleep.

Our bodies go through nature adaptation like primitive man, adaptation like the bug bite acclimation that our fragile bodies go through as the multitude of insects have drawn enough of our blood and deemed it distasteful because of caffeine and foreign chemicals. Changes like, your ears becoming more attuned to the sounds of your environment and how your mind picks up on coincidences that in a fast paced city have become over looked.  Mundane things like: the patterns of leaves, the direction water flows and the sound the wind makes as it blows through the trees.

There is a magic that happens when your able to sit around a camp fire at night under the stars that brings out a sort of deep ancestral understanding of the world and each other.  Whether it is the smoke from the fire, the circular position everyone assumes or the darkness and its effect on the conscious mind each person becomes closer.

The awe and rapture of the night time sky keeps everyone periodically looking up as though expecting to see something unexplainable to the human eye, and ever so often some distant spirit of the heavens gives off it’s own firework show.

When your older and your taking all of this in ( I can only imagine what my mom is thinking ) you realize that Einstein’s notion of the relativity of time is not only true but that so much of the relative aspects of time are based on our perception of our immediate environment.  People so happy to be around each other, nothing else exists in the world.

When it’s time to go, everyone packs up their cars gives big hugs and set off towards civilization again, time sets back in motion in it’s normal syncopation, cell phones come back out.  It’s then at that moment of reflection when some of life’s secrets are revealed.

The small things, that express greater meaning, the idea that locked inside our perception of the world our surrounding environment is telling us to see with our eyes and our hearts.

I wrote this post months ago and it stayed in my drafts folder, because it needed to be spell checked and proofed ( which says something because there are probably loads of grammatical mistakes still ) but I woke up early this morning and had a moment seeing the small stuff… and I caught it on camera… and thought… this is the kind of small stuff that should be in this post

WP_20140924_06_54_30_Pro WP_20140924_06_54_47_Pro WP_20140924_06_55_04_Pro WP_20140924_06_55_16_Pro WP_20140924_06_55_25_Pro   WP_20140924_06_55_54_ProWP_20140924_06_55_48_ProWP_20140924_06_55_41_Pro

UPDATE Voice Command Running Jacket Prototype – Phase 3 – using the functional prototype

New Update on my Voice Command Running Jacket project.  The first update being that the entire project has essentially turned into a “Voice Command Directional Apparatus” module.  I found this to be a better direction for the project as you can take the device and use it on almost anything that can sustain a balanced state while being shaken.   Objects like a helmet, a jacket, a shirt it really doesn’t matter where you put it as long as the voice recognition Arduino modules can pick up your voice which works from about 15ft away.

Before I begin with my prototype I want to show you some of the really great products and ideas out there already, so there is a basis for my project.  I hope what you’ll see is that each product has it’s advantages and disadvantages.  Mine would be literally hands free, and the ability to use it in conjunction with different kinds of objects and situations makes it more versatile.

This product has similarities but, relies on the functionality to be stuffed into a sweatshirt
Dr. Leah Buechley used this device to test out her Lilypad – an Arduino designed for wearables and e-textiles. In this use the Lilypad powers a set of left and right turn LEDs as well as power and switch indicator LEDs on the jacket.

Seil Bag has been designed to display left and right signals, well actually various signals that the rider wants to display instead of using hand signals, it comes in the form of a backpack. There’s a small controller which can be used to transmit basic signals to LED display



Video of me putting the Voice Command Directional Apparatus on a Columbia Fleece, and simulating night time running.

Video of my beautiful wife wearing the Voice Command Directional Apparatus on a Columbia Fleece and being my first test subject.  It took some convincing… but after calling me a dork a few times she agreed.


At this point I am going to start putting  refined versions of this project and a few variations of it in the Fall Milwaukee Gallery Night.  If you would like to see this project in person and have a drink with some exceptional people, stop down to Thirsty Boy in the thirdward.

I have also posted this project to, Please vote on it.  If you haven’t used before check it out, it is like Kickstarter but better.


HERE ARE MY MOLESKIN SKETCHES – Showing the now modular apparatus being used in other situations.




UPDATE Voice Command Running Jacket Prototype – Phase 2 – adding the voice command module

I have an update to my Voice Command Running Jacket Prototype.

The Arduino UNO finally has Phase 2 parts added.  The last time I posted about the project on Word Press I had the two 8×8 matrix displays setup to receive scrolling directions based on text input commands sent through the Serial Monitor.


Building upon that code, I now have those functions that were being called on text input now setup to act inside a switch case block inside the event for voice capture and recognition.  The great part about starting the project off with text input through the Serial Monitor is that the Voice Command Module still operates through the serial port thus making the original code for this project very scalable.

There are a couple of really good Classes/libraries that I am using in this project. The first is the Parola Library:

This Library is a pretty robust scrolling library. The ability to scroll text, isn’t to hard to do from scratch, but the creators of this library have easing, inverted text and support for fonts to name a few.

* If you are going to use this library, there are a couple of pitfalls that you should keep in mind. The library was originally designed to work with a specific 8×8 LED matrix display, it has been updated to use any generic 8×8 but you have to update the .h file.

The next Library in the list is the SoftwareSerial, which actually is an internal Arduino Class that you import. Using this class helps assign RX and TX to other slots on the board.
*This is another pitfall area that I want to call out. All Arduino boards have dedicated TX and RX slots. The catch is the dedicated slots don’t allow interrupts back and forth. This for the most part was undocumented until I found an Ardunio forum page online that explains it in detail which slots on what boards do support interrupts.


The Voice Command Module is really easy to use,  It has 4 connection points ( GND, VCC, TX, RX) which fit as they should on the Arduino board and you can get up and running within 45min… If you have the information I have in the next two paragraphs… before you start…

* The catch here is that in order to interact with the Module you have to use a specific serial monitor app that ships with the device, which isn’t the best piece of software… and the Manual lacks some specific explanation as to the exact format of the HEX CODES the Voice Command Module needs inorder to set it up.  The Manual has a detailed table showing all the Commands ( 0x36 )but doesn’t express that the format  isn’t what is in the table but looks like this ( AAx36 ) instead…

*Also another pitfall that was undocumented was the act of “NOT” flipping the TX and RX connection points on the USB TTL adapter.  In almost every project that I have used on the Arduino you flip RX and TX, but for the recording and saving voice commands from your PC to the Voice Command Module, you don’t…  This took me 2 hrs of trial and error to find this bug.  This was really hard to find because the software is so bad, the issue looks as though it is your RX display settings.

All in all this project has been really fun, and shows the power of prototyping with Arduino and it’s plethora of compliant modules.

The previous video and older Blog post can be found here:



Arduino UNO:

8×8 Matrix Displays:

Voice Command Module:



If you like this comment, and let me know what you think.



UX UI Presentation app Idea – Show Off Your User Interaction From Different View Points

I had a great app idea today while looking at Pinterest. First off a quick shout out to Pinterest… Pinterest is such an amazing way to get a graphical and visual experience for just about any flavor of life. I am a magazine junkie and so to have something digital that finally takes the place of the pure visual inspiration of a Design magazine is wonderful.

OK back to the topic of apps… When you look at Design Magazines and Visual Design from places like Pinterest you not only get a sense of the design but more often times than not the design is being put into context in layout like this:

or like this:

While this is great, it doesn’t help for actually interacting with the design UI itself. Wouldn’t it be great to have an app that you could upload your ipa, or .app, .xap, etc.

The app would take the user interface uploaded and put it into an environment in perspective on a device in the wild and then could display it moving while you interacted with close up layer of the UI.

The problems this app would solve could be:

– A Sense of up close and personal with the navigation.
– Seeing the UI from far away. I think this is something that classic UI and UX people leave out. What does the UI look like from the other side of the room? It sounds silly but in comparison to a good Logo designer, a good logo looks good if you shrink it down to postage stamp size, or if you blow it up to the size of a building.
– This could help the application fit into many to many scenarios during a single viewing (hospital, manufacturing, business, etc.)
– Great Presentation, tool.




Athletic Jersey Powered With Arduino LilyPad Can Detect Jumping – Lights Up LED

2014 is going to be a really good year for technology based wearable clothing.  Take for instance  CUTECIRCUIT. This company has been building LED clothing now for awhile and is just now starting to become mainstream enough that Mercedes has picked up on it.

CHECK OUT THESE VIDEOS: these are amazing

Wearable clothing technology has been out in the wild for some time but it has been encased in the avante garde and tech communities which have a higher adoption rate of technology.

In 2013 the “wearable” concept was really put in motion by wrist bands like NikeFuel Band, Jawbone, and FitBits.  If you look at the group of people that these wrist wearables were targeting there is a marketing secret, in that “Athletes” bridge the divide.  They are not completely avante garde but have passions for style, and they are not completely techy but they see a need for technology because it helps them compete.

Ok so without jumping into a Marketing Theory rabbit hole, as this is a short blog post, “Wearable clothing technology” is going to be hot… as it is the next evolution of the wrist wearable wave.

So I started thinking of places where we would see this outcropping of wearable technology and I came up with a really neat idea for a Basketball Jersey built on the Arduino LilyPad technology.  Again nothing new as you would have seen in the CUTECIRCUIT link above ( I completely admire them by the way ) but I think unlike the CUTE CIRCUIT folks my idea for a basketball jersey has a more “mainstream” approach as the idea could expand into many different sports.

The basic idea would be to create a jersey that contained an accelerometer connected to an Arduino LilyPad.  Which could detect specifically “jumping” at which point the Arduino would turn on LEDs contained in the jersey.  If you think about it for a second the very idea of a player jumping to slam dunk a basketball or catch a football and to have their jersey light up with a pair of LED wings would be fantastic.