Special characters - an ambiguous icon that's not a hamburger?

over 9 years ago from , UX Designer at K12.org

(my first discussion post, howdy DN!)

I'm sure you've all used a text editor with the ability to add special characters. Have you ever questioned the button icon used?

You're typing some spanish, and can't find the eñe.. where do I click? Should i google it, and copy/paste? ... this should be a simple control right?

Ah of course, a button with a character from the greek alphabet! Surely clicking the Ω is going to reveal my special spanish characters...

To be perfectly clear, i'm designing for K-12 students and teachers, so a very wide demographic. I suggested we add the term 'symbols' next to the omega icon in our text editor to increase initial understanding...

And received some rather rude feedback, explaining how millions of people already know how to use it, and after linking him to a Luke W slide deck discussing the age-old hamburger debate, he told me he was an 'acquantance of Luke's' (whatever that means) and imparted some of Lukes 2004 wisdom on me - "when we follow patterns that are established by widely used applications then those applications are essentially "training" users for us"

Despite the fact that i'm not changing the icon, just adding text to increase understanding rather than change understanding. (in a world where alt text isn't enough!)

Anyways, all this to be said on a monday to ask...

Have you run into this odd wide-spread use of a greek character to universally indicate special characters in all languages in your designs, and scratch your head for a moment?

How did you deal with it?

Here's a ckeditor demo so you can see what i'm talking about. http://ckeditor.com/demo


  • Nick Zakhar, over 9 years ago

    And hey what do you know, good ol' NN/g released an article to help my case.


    Specifically for this case:

    "Summary: A user’s understanding of an icon is based on previous experience. Due to the absence of a standard usage for most icons, text labels are necessary to communicate the meaning and reduce ambiguity."

    "There is no need to translate icons for international users, provided that the icons are mindful of cultural differences (for example, mailboxes look very different in various countries whereas envelopes look the same, therefore an envelope is a more international icon for an email program than a mailbox)."

    1 point
  • Ryan Hicks, over 9 years ago

    Icon Usability http://www.nngroup.com/articles/icon-usability/

    0 points
  • Mike BulajewskiMike Bulajewski, over 9 years ago

    Your interlocutor is wrong because he or she is applying a pattern for a different use case. In Word, the Omega icon means insert a mathematical symbol.

    It sounds like your users want to insert non English accented characters. There's no pattern for this in Word because they assume users have set up the keyboard language at the OS level.

    I think your instincts are right, but the Omega icon and the word 'symbol' are both misleading. Ideally you want an icon to represent 'accented characters'. Could be an Ñ if spanish is the most common language. If you need text, then 'accents' probably makes more sense than 'symbols'.

    0 points
    • Nick Zakhar, over 9 years ago

      That's a really great point!

      My initial hesitation towards the icon was the fact that this was for spanish and french accented characters.. but we're using a greek symbol.

      If he ends up taking my suggestion, he'd probably have a heart attack if I then tried to sell him on this idea, but I appreciate you raising the point. I would think in america the Ñ is much more recognizable and effective for this purpose.

      0 points
  • ポール ウェッブポール ウェッブ, over 9 years ago

    Whoever gave you rude feedback is an asshole. There's no need to be rude. Anyhoo, it doesn't hurt to have labels next to buttons. Open up Microsoft Word or some other productivity app. There are labels below, above, or next to symbols.

    0 points
    • Nick Zakhar, over 9 years ago

      He was pretty rude, and you're right, no big deal, just add some text.

      Sometimes my inner Rodney Dangerfield just needs to be satisfied...

      No respect.. no respect.

      1 point