Which menu items get icons?

One of the mysteries of the menus-and-toolbars based UI of Office 97-2003 is "which menu items get icons?" If you look at the top-level menus of any of the Office programs, you'll see that some items have icons and some don't.

As it was told to me by one of the designers who worked on it, originally the icons were given to menu items which also appeared on toolbars. As a result, there was a visual link between the toolbar icon and the menu item which would help to communicate their relationship. On the other hand, items which were not present in any toolbar (such as Format.Font in Word) didn't have an icon.

However, the rules for when to use an icon weren't really set in stone, and over time people started to use them for other reasons--to help a feature stand out on the menu or because the designer working on it wanted the sexy new feature to have an icon.

So we ended up with a bit of a mish-mash of features with icons and features without them. I'm not sure if it actually impacted usability at all (I sort of think it probably didn't), but if you were trying to discern meaning from the presence or absence of icons, there was not much to go on.

In the Office 2007 user interface, we're trying to be more consistent about which features have icons.

Specifically, all features represented in the top-level Ribbon have icons. This gives the visual design a more uniform appearance and helps guide the eye to the feature names. It also helps scaling, because in situations in which the Ribbon needs to shrink down into a very small space (think < 500 px.), we can scale features down to their icons and rely on the tooltips to reveal the feature names.

Crafting icons for so many features is an extremely time-consuming and expensive process, but one that should be worth it when evaluated as part of the overall fit-and-finish of the product.

Comments (23)

  1. Adam Young says:

    I’ve got a question for you about the Save icon in Office; like most apps, this is a floppy disk icon (although I once worked with a woman who thought it was a TV set, the old 50s style ones with the wooden cabinet). Trouble is, floppies are now pretty much obsolete; so moving forwards, users ain’t gonna know what a floppy disk was, let alone what they looked like… so will you change the icon? If so, what to…?

  2. Steve Bucci says:

    I think the floppy disk icon will continue to work long after the floppy is gone.  It’s along the lines of still having an old cradle style phone, sometimes even rotary, as the icon for a phone number.  Those types of phones are long gone, but they make a better iconic representation than a cell phone.  I think the floppy meaning "save" just becomes part of the language whether or not you actually use a floppy.  

    It’s sort of along the lines that email doesn’t really go in an envelope, but you the picture tells the story.

    My two cents, anyway.

  3. I agree with Steve. After all, we still use an ox’s head to represent the a sound. <g>

  4. Ron says:

    I’m glad to see you’re creating icons for other items.  I wish the original thought for icons had been something like "If it *can* sit on a toolbar, create an icon for it."  I’ve had to create a bunch of icons for applications over the years just because I wanted to have some functionality on the/a toolbar.  The alternative was to use the text and most times the text takes up way too much space.  I could always look at the tool tip if my icon didn’t make sense to me later (though this happens rarely).

  5. Neil Jimack says:

    Wow, it DOES look like an old TV set!

  6. Yes, there are users who have never used a floppy. Then again, my Windows volume control icon is a unenclosed speaker, and you can bet there are a lot of users that have never seen a speaker outside of its cabinet. If you change the Save icon to something like an image of a hard disk, that’s not going to improve things much. How many users know what a hard disk looks like? Even if you know it’s a disk (floppy or hard), why should it mean Save? Why not Open? Or Format? It’s not like a floppy was such a great icon even when we *were* using primarily floppies, but we got by. Unlabeled toolbars controls are supposed to be for experts, after all. Frankly for commands, making an icon that is interpretable by naive users is almost impossible. For something as well-established as Save, you’re probably better off sticking with what at least experienced users are used to.

  7. Stephen McLaren says:

    On a related topic (sort of), in Office 2007 if I write an addin will I be able to add personalised icons? I’m already assuming that I’ll be able to use the set that ships with the product…

    Oh and is there a way of finding the full list of ‘native’ icons? I’ve always wanted to know what the full possibilities(sp?) are?

  8. Alexander Rehbein says:

    An interesting question is:

    Why do Icons in Office 2003 do not have any inactive-State like in older versions?

    I remember that in older versions the action’s item was greyed out if was not applicable – does Office 2007 have this functionality again?

  9. Mike says:

    If the ribbon is properly designed, there is no need for contextual menus at all. All that it shows is that instead of giving access to a classic UI, you guys have taken the shortcut and mixed old and new things together. That’s inconsistent, and lame.

  10. Kishan says:

    In Word 2003 Inactive menu items’ icons ARE grayed-out(when they are not applicable)

  11. George Pribul says:

    Harsh comment Mike. Remember, not all the programs are getting the Ribbon, and for those that do use it, what do you expect to see on the drop down lists when they’re used?

  12. I’m afraid I really don’t understand Mike’s comment.  I guess contextual menus are never NEEDED, but they are certainly helpful.  When I’m working with a graph for instance it’s handy to be presented with menus that contain commands that I might want to use with that graph.

    By the same token if I’m adding an appointment to my calendar it’s almost useless to be presented with commands that show me the Internet headers of that appointment item.

    Contexual menus aren’t necessary, but they certainly reduce clutter and, if properly implemented, improve productivity.  The tricky thing is not making it impossible for a user to do things you didn’t predict they’d want to do — effectively locking them out of valid features or tools just because we don’t expect they’d use them.


  13. Mark Steward says:

    I’d also include any groups of menu items that need distinction.  Trying to work out the difference between Table’s "Columns to the Left", "Colums to the Right", "Rows Above" and "Rows Below" can take a couple of seconds.  Simply glancing down the icons will quickly identify which one’s which, rather than having to read every word (as the first ones are the same).

    That’s why icons are so popular – they’re not just eye candy, they tell you what the item does, and increase confidence.  I’m sure there are better examples.  


  14. Stephen McLaren:

    I, too, hope there will still be support for custom icons (and a button face editor), as I have some custom-designed ones I’m rather fond of. As for the built-in ones, there is a macro that will generate a table of all the icons available in Office. See http://word.mvps.org/FAQs/MacrosVBA/CustomButtonFaces.htm

  15. John Franks says:

    The question is not why use a floppy icon for save, rather it’s why do we still have "save"?

    In these modern days when the save paradigm has been thoroughly discredited (we all surely know the explaining it and the consequent pain of explaining hard disk space vs. memory etc.) can we not lose it? I mean, document recovery shows we have the technology. Why not edit until I close the window and support undo and the ability to set a version marker that saves off a version of the file permanently? It’s a more powerful and intuitive combination than save.

  16. LDR says:

    John Franks:

    What?  Make it work just like the user would expect it to work?  No save/save as confusion?  No remembering to save often in case of a power outage?  No figuring out where to put a document just so I don’t loose it?  No stupid do you want to save questions when I close the document?  No acidentally saving and not being able to undo?

    Sounds good to me.

  17. ChrisC says:

    "Yes, there are users who have never used a floppy."

    Floppy? I think it looks more like a diskette than a floppy, and those are only now being phased out.

    Just my $0.02

      -Chris C.

  18. kalleboo says:

    Office Mac uses a Zip disk for save. Slightly more modern, just as obsolete. 🙂

  19. Tero M says:

    I have to agree with John. I’d love to see Office to be the first major application to drop the whole save-paradigm. Saving is imposing the implementation model to the user instead of matching the user’s mental model.

    That put aside, icons do not need to represent the actions too much in detail. I’m pretty sure one can never have an image that will be intepreted the same way across different people. Icons serve as symbols to represent the action and mapping between the symbol and the action helps users to find the desired action more quickly once they’ve learned the connection between the two.

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