Privacy Icon Problems—Ignoring Design & Testing Rules

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Several recent attempts at designing icons meant to clarify how your information will be shared on the web have underscored how important it is that the existing symbol design rules and organizations be involved in the process.

The failure to include (or consult them, or even be aware of them) has led to what I believe are poor designs that will only further confuse Internet users on an already confusing subject.

Aside from ignoring the graphical symbol design principles, the principals of the most recent project (see New Privacy Icons Aim to Save You From Yourself) have failed to cast the net broadly enough. Although they have a narrow focus, designing any symbol such that it can be readily understood requires one to think not only of the immediate purpose, but about all related concepts, including not only what symbols have existed before, but what else might be needed in the future, so that one doesn’t create a design that closes off further variations on the theme. For instance, there seems to be no inclusion of how to indicate sharing of geolocation, or how to ensure that symbols for this type of information sharing and symbols to indicate how widely posts on social media sites are propagated are similar enough to be understandable.

In Privacy Icons—Alpha Release, Aza Raskin describes an initial set of icons meant to indicate how data is shared with other organizations. Its comprehensiveness is much better than the single icon created by the advertising industry and his group has spent considerable time researching the principles of what privacy issues need to be communicated, there are no references to symbol design standards, experts, or the testing procedures needed to ensure one has created a symbol that can be understood.

Worse, the wiki page on the project indicates that crowdsourcing will be used to further develop the symbols. Getting lots of different perspectives involved in the process is good theoretically, but will create icons that are far worse than having one or two people who understand symbol design principles lead the effort.

Raskin’s group has a good foundation of what needs to be communicated visually, but has created icons that misuse existing symbol elements in such a way as to make comprehension difficult and confusing.

This group needs to get the appropriate ISO symbol standards organization involved post-haste, and to find some funding in order to properly test the results of the next versions of the symbols.

More after the holidays…

Author: Peter Sheerin

Peter Sheerin is best known for the decade he spent as the Technical Editor of CADENCE magazine, where he was the acknowledged expert in Computer-Aided Design hardware and software. He has a long-standing passion for improving usability of software, hardware, and everyday objects that is always interwoven in his articles. Peter is available for freelance technical writing and product reviews, and is exploring career opportunities in interaction design. His pet personal project is exploring the best ways to harmonize visual, tactile, and audible symbols for improving the effectiveness of alerting systems.

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