Co.Design

Do iOS 8's Hollow Icons Really Break People's Brains?

Hollow icons are all the rage, but do users have a harder time understanding them?

When Apple first released the newly redesigned iOS 7 last year, critics of the new look claimed that the wispy new line-drawing icons were far less legible than the bolder, more solid-in icons of iOS 6. They said it lead to cognitive fatigue. But now that iOS 8 is doubling down on the hollow icon formula, is there any truth to the assertion that hollow icons are more difficult for users to understand than solid icons?

To find out, user experience designer Curt Arledge created a web app that measured users' speed and accuracy in selecting icons with different visual styles. Each user was asked to match an icon with its name, from a grid of 20 icons that used both hollow and solid icons on white and black backgrounds.

Arledge discovered that across more than 1,000 tests, hollow icons were no less likely to be recognized than solid icons. There was one exception: Hollow icons that used white lines on black backgrounds were recognized about a quarter second slower than any other type of icons. Most users' brains, it seems, need a moment to recognize hollow icons when they are presented in a negative color space.

That exception aside, on average, Arledge found no real difference between users' recognition of icons based simply on their being hollow or solid-in. He did find that for specific individual icons, the hollow variant was sometimes recognized faster than the solid-in one, or vice versa. So some icon designs work better one way, and others another. Designers must test both.

The takeaway? Unless you're creating white-on-black hollow icons, the major factor contributing to an icon not being recognized is no different post-iOS 7 than it was before. Whether hollow or solid, the icons people have trouble recognizing are the ones that don't take the user--and test data--properly into account. If people don't understand your hollow icon, don't blame iOS 8. Just go back to the drawing board.

You can read more of Arledge's findings here.

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10 Comments

  • As long as their guidelines don't become rules and we provide well designed intuitive screen experiences, I don't see a reason to follow exactly what Google, Apple and Microsoft say. They are companies with guidelines not law enforcement.

  • The reason you follow design guidelines is you can build an app that looks tailored to the platform. Imagine an iOS 6 app running on Windows Phone 8. Or vice versa. Not pretty, right? Those are extreme examples, but the point is both have their own distinct designs, and apps should try to look like they belong. It's not law. It just creates a better experience for the user on the platform.

  • Understanding the meaning of an icon should not be the problem we are looking at here. A letter "A" is still a letter "A" independently of being Extra light or Ultra Bold, and the problem with icons should be stated as if it was typographic one. Is the weight adequate for quick readability in less than optimal conditions? Extreme font weights (thin and thick) are used in less critical conditions and never in really small sizes (Display sizes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typeface#Display_type). Use common sense. In a screen the size of a business card (like the iPhone 5S) we have a perfect case where form should follow function.