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How to perform usability testing on icons

Sheza Naveed


As we shift from larger interfaces to smaller interfaces, the use of icons increases. It is essential to ensure that the user understands what the icon aims to convey.

The only way to know this is to perform usability testing on icons.


To perform usability testing, we need to ask the following questions.

  1. Do people recognize and understand what the icon represents?

  2. Can people find the icon on the interface?

  3. Does the icon have a high information scent? This allows users to correctly guess what will happen once they click on the icon.

  4. Is the icon attractive or not?

In-context and out-of-context testing

In-context testing is when the icon is shown to the user in the context of the interface in which the icons will actually be displayed.

Out-of-context testing is when the icon is shown to the user in isolation and not in the interface in which it will actually be placed.

In-context (left) vs out-of-context (right) display

Quality criteria to perform icon usability testing

1. Recognition

Recognition must be tested on out-of-context icons. If icons are shown in the interface where they are to be placed, users might guess the purpose of the icon.

When shown in isolation, it is entirely upon the icon if the users recognize it or not. Moreover, the icons should not be accompanied by text and should be the icons the users are asked to recognize.

2. Information scent

The information scent of icons can be tested in the same way. However, users should be given some context regarding the icon to see if they can correctly guess what will happen once they click on the icon.

3. Findability

Findability must be tested on in-context icons, as it determines whether users can find the icon when placed in the actual interface or not.

  • Time-to-locate test

Time-to-locate tests can be great at testing findability.

Users are given a particular task, and we measure the time taken by the users to find the correct icon and the first-click rate.

First-click rate: how many times has the first icon clicked? Does the right icon help to determine the findability of the icon?

4. Attractiveness

Attractiveness of the icon should be tested both in-context and out-of-context, as it allows us to determine if the icon is attractive in itself and whether it fits in the actual interface that it will be placed in.



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