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.




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.