Online Information Midterm:
Icon Advertisements in Online Services Software

Jaye A. H. Lapachet
LIS 296A


While Macintoshes started the icon craze, the rage intensified when Microsoft began shipping Windows "free" with IBM compatible computers. Users now expect graphical user interfaces, and, as a result, icons in software interfaces are prevalent. In addition to finding icons in the regular applications, such as word processing, icons are being added to the software interfaces that allow users to connect and navigate online services such as America Online, Prodigy, GEnie and CompuServe. Even the Internet is not immune. Mail readers, such as Eudora and NUpop, are being written with graphical user interfaces to allow users to participate without having to learn much of the UNIX command language.

While software companies are counting the dollars they can rake in from connecting people to online services, are icons really the answer users' to interface problems? Are icons a permanent solution or a computing trend? This paper will look at icons available on two systems, America Online and CompuServe. This paper will evaluate their icons and discuss their use as well as reporting on insights gleaned from users of these systems. America Online tends to get more attention in this paper, because I had a difficult time finding CompuServe users besides myself. This paper will assume a certain amount of computer knowledge, including familiarity with basic Internet terminology.

The two services, America Online and CompuServe, were examined and their interface was evaluated based solely on their icons. This was done because the icons are one of the most prominent features in their systems and they are marketed as making the services so easy to use that the learning curve will be minimized.

Icons are graphics placed on a button or pull-down menu that allow users to click on the button to perform a function rather than typing in a command string. Icons are advertised as alleviating the need for users to memorize complex series of commands. The old saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" is right. The idea behind icons is a good one, because people seem to remmeber a visual image much better than textual commands. Icons, also, try to help interface designers get a message across to users that is too long to put into words; they save space on the screen while giving users information that they need.

Both CompuServe and America Online show how important they consider their icons. Icon information is placed prominently in the user/membership guides that are sent with the signup software. After the initial set up pages in the CompuServe Quick Start Guide: Information Manager for Windows, the first thing the guide discusses is their "WinCim Ribbon,"[1] which is CompuServe's equivalent of an icon bar at the top of the screen. They show a picture of each icon and either describe it or refer you to another page that describes the icon's function.

America Online describes their "flashbar," the equivalent of an icon bar, in the guide they send with the free software. Although their flashbar explanation is on the last three pages, there is very little in the guide and this information stands out.

Icons are a good idea that went wrong. There are several reasons for the degradation in the usefulness of icons. First of all, there are too many icons. Icons became less useful to the novice users when interface designers began using icons for everything. Interface design has reached the point with icons where they are no longer unique. America Online has, at least, eighteen icons on their main screen's flashbar, while CompuServe has twelve.

Second, the symbols are obscure and not universal across systems. While one must expect every service to be different, different icons are confusing for new users, especially if they have switched from another service. The lack of standardization of icons is also requires that patrons of several online systems must learn several sets of icons. Since the images on the icons not standard, use of these systems can be a very frustrating experience. Because icons are not standard across systems they become more like advertisements than navigational aids. These advertisements of the computing world seem to be placed to tempt the user to look behind just one more door. By looking behind one more icon, the user is often faced with another menu, and thus another set of choices. Most icons, in my opinion, are obscure and tempt the user rather than offering useful information about what is behind the icon.

Aside from the Macintosh garbage can, there are few, if any universally understood symbols. In comparing the CompuServe and America Online icon bars, one immediately notices that all of the icons are different, except for one, despite the fact that some of the functions, such as reading electronic mail, are the same. The help icon is characterized on both systems as a question mark. The functionality of this icon is slightly different, however. By clicking the CompuServe "Help" icon the user will be connected to context-sensitive help information.[2] By clicking the question mark icon on America Online the user is moved to Members' Online Support. The description of this section is "an extensive help file that covers everything from descriptions of the eight departments to how to download files to your PC..."[3] One standard icon out of many does not give the user very much of a head start in learning a new system.

The rest of the icons are very different from each other. While they both concentrate on moving the user from one place to another, CompuServe's icons are more direct, while America Online's icons are hierarchical. For example, the cloud and sun icon on CompuServe moves the searcher directly to the weather section, while on America Online, you need to click the airplane (Travel & Shopping) icon, then find the weather. Most systems seem to have similar pictures on their icons, but they are just different enough, and applied to different areas of the service, to confuse the searcher.

Third, icons have become like advertisements in magazines that promise to change your life. The user clicks on an icon, expecting just what s/he wants, because of the purported ease of use, but instead of information the searcher faces another menu, or another choice. The products (or icons) can never deliver the promised lifestyle alone. Although the consumer does purchase the product, s/he does not own everything else in the advertisement required to make up the lifestyle. Icons are the same way. They promise great riches, but give the user more menus, more choices and no satisfaction. Additionally, once you click the icon, you can get lost in a maze of other choices with no map.

Fourth, since many of the icons did not appear, to me, to be self explanatory, the user must try them out in order to figure out where they lead, despite the cheerleading, or brainwashing, on behalf of icons that America Online help screens provide:

"You'll find exploring is simple on America Online since you'll encounter familiar icons, pull-down menus and windows."[4]

How can icons be familar if they are different from other systems' icons? The answer is that they cannot be familar, which means that icons cannot fulfill promises made by the writers of the help screens. As a result of the unfamilar icons the user must navigate the system by clicking randomly (or exploring) and this endeavor takes time, which, in turn, eats up the free "learning" time given by many systems. Natalie Zee agrees when she says "... I remember actually clicking on various icons on the tool bar wondering what the hell they were. The pictures, some of them, made no sense."[5] Services, even with the best intentions, and the best icon designers, cannot guarantee that everyone will interpret every icon correctly, or even that each icon will be interpreted the same way by different searchers. It is to the detriment of the system, because people obtain a skewed feel for the system if they have to randomly find paths to the information they seek.

As a contrast, one is faced, in many cases, with a Unix prompt when logging on to the Internet, which is very unfriendly. The Unix prompt, however, does not tantalize you with "icon-advertisements," or promises of ease of use. As a result of the two navigation methods, the learning curves are very different on these two systems. With America Online and CompuServe, the access points are presented up front, but you only have some clues as to what information is available. With a Unix interface, as the knowledge of Unix commands increases, you find the access points to information.

Fifth, by observing the use of icons, it appears that people are less likely to gather useful or interesting information and learn in an icon oriented environment. By using the icons the user often has to wade through many layers of menus to get to the information. Thus users learn to consume and discard information rather than learn to build search methods.

Finally, icon based systems do not foster community building like other systems do. In a UNIX based environment, communities and relationships are built, because the user has to ask questions in order to learn how to perform progressively more powerful commands. In America Online, the clicking is so easy that users click on an icon, and when they do not find what information they need, they click on the equivalent of the "GoBack" key. As a result, there is little or no interchange between actual humans. There might be useful and interesting information behind all of the icons, but not knowing what any of the icons mean requires that a user stumble around, looking for information or guidance. When the icons do not provide the promised riches, the user gets the impression that s/he does not have access to the vast amount of information hidden behind icons.

Some users disagree. Steve Mark, a self characterized "newbie" online services user of three months characterizes America Online as having "...colorful graphics and a user-friendly interface." In addition, Mark remarked that America Online talked to him when he logged on, and that "AOL is centered around pictures and icons, which cater to our increasingly visual population, and the MTV/Nintendo generation of new computer users."[6]

Icons mean different things to different users. Natalie Munn, an experienced user, agrees somewhat, with caveats, but still thinks that:

The icons used by AOL work pretty good, because they are standardized across AOL. However, when you enter an area that is managed by someone else, like Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art, there is divergence from the standard AOL icons.

She also says that "the more privately provided/managed areas that you frequent on AOL, the more likely you are to run into conflicting or confusing icons."[7]

Munn's comments indicate that although the icons are useful for moving around standard America Online areas, which new users might frequent, the more interesting areas demand that you know different sets of icons. These areas might require more computer sophistication or system knowledge to locate. If this is the case, then why have icons in the first place, except to give an illusion of ease of use?

With the media's attention focused on modems, information and online access it is no surprise that online access providers such as CompuServe, and America Online are more popular than ever. With their popularity, comes the need to upgrade systems to handle the new subscribers, and upgrading systems costs money. These companies must have to get more subscribers in order to meet the capital requirements needed for upgrades to their systems. Of course, they also need to pay for dividends to their stockholders.

In order to reach new customers online service providers have to target people who are not as familiar with computers and networked environments. As a result, the services have to pay more attention than ever to system interfaces. This means more icons.

To reach a diverse number of people, their software must make the systems easy to navigate. Regardless of the useful amount of information a service contains, a customer will not use the system if the access software is difficult to use.[8] Another factor is that since icons have already been invented, there are not a lot of Research and Development costs associated with adding icons to the latest version of their membership/interface software. Creating a new navigation tool requires more than just programmers. In a simplified version of the process, new navigation concepts must be conceived, potential customers must be surveyed, concepts must be programmed and tested, the concepts must be marketed and made available to users. Creating new navigation tools does not make for the quick influx of cash many of these companies seem to want in order to upgrade their systems and keep their shareholders happy.

Mark and Munn both point out that just because the system has a graphical user interface, does not mean that it is better for all users,[9] or that it is easier to move from area to area using icons.[10] Many online service providers, that include a graphical user interface with their membership/interface software also provide direct commands to get a user somewhere faster. On America Online, they are called Keyword commands while CompuServe users type "Go" and the name of the place they want. These direct commands are like a command line commands int hat they allow experienced users to zip from favorite place to favorite place, while bypassing the icons, and layers of menus. This technique allows experienced users to efficiently use their time and to avoid the frustration of repeated slow screen redrawing.

Articles about online services are multiplying every day. The San Francisco Chronicle recently established a column on Thursdays called Fast Forward dedicated to online services, information and the Information Superhighway. With media attention focused on computer mediated communication and the online retrieval of information icons are here to stay until something better comes along.

Fortunately, something better is gaining in popularity. Mosaic is an interesting use of icon-like navigation tools that have have been developed as a browser for the World Wide Web.[11] Mosaic is a hypermedia application that works like Hypercard.

Rather than icons, parts of the text, or pictures, are highlighted. A searcher can click on the highlighted portions, establishing a direct link to the desired information. Links have been programmed into the document "under" the highlighted terms. The link seamlessly connects the searcher to other sites for the information that they need. The information available includes images, text and sound files. The beauty of Mosaic is that there is no guessing at what icons mean, since the actual text and pictures are the links. This method gives the searcher an excellent idea of what will be retrieved. Other aspects of Mosaic need work, though. The addresses for Mosaic servers are long and complicated. Also, Mosaic can be "achingly slow (sometimes taking 10-15 minutes to connect to a server and transfer all the information)."[12]

Another Hypermedia program, still in the development stages is called Viola. Viola promises to make information retrieval even easier with its improved text formatting and drawing program.[13]

Despite the promise of Mosaic and Viola, there is no end in sight to the proliferation of icons either. A search in the COMP database on UC Berkeley's MELVYL system retrieved 174 articles about icons. The majority of the articles were reviews of new programs to help developers manage icons, or assist programmers in adding icons to their applications. Some of the articles discussed programs for users to manage the proliferation of icons or to jazz up the standard, boring icons provided by software vendors.

Kelly R. Conaiser, a contributing' editor to LOTUS and a consultant specializing in spreadsheet application development, puts some perspective on the use of icons.

... you can identify the buttons with shockingly lucid labels, such as "Print." The revelation was abrupt: The SmartIcons that I identify unfailingly are the ones that consist of characters: B for bold, I for italic, U for underline. But when I thought about it, it made perfect sense...[14]

Perhaps the message is that simpler is better. Online services should use icons sparingly and create services that are truly easy to use with more context-sensitive help and no obscure commands. While this strategy may put icon designers out of work and ruin the icon fad, in the long run, it should make more users want to use the systems and more users use online services successfully.


[1] CompuServe Quick Start Guide: Information Manager for Windows, (Columbus, OH : CompuServe), pg.12-13.

[2] CompuServe, pg.13.

[3] America Online, Free Trial Membership Brochure and Software, (Vienna, VA : America Online), pg.3.

[4] Help screens. America Online for Windows Ver. 1.1, America Online, Inc., Vienna, VA.

[5] Natalie Zee, "E-mail message: Help with 296a Paper", e-mail message to Jaye Lapachet, Monday 18 April 1994, 21:59:54 (PDT).

[6] Steve Mark, "Text-Based Cyberspace:... Logging-on Borrowed Time?" For Howard Besser's Impact of New Information Resources: Multimedia and New Information class, Spring 1994, pg.3.

[7] Natalie Munn, "E-mail message: Help with 296A Paper", e-mail message to Jaye Lapachet, Sunday April 17, 1994 15:24, pg.1.

[8] This does not mean that customers will use a system where the software is great, but no good information exists on they system.

[9] Mark, pg.4

[10] Munn, pg.2.

[11] Rachael Myrow,, (Berkeley, CA : Graduate Assembly), The Berkeley Graduate (April 1994) : 12

[12] Myrow, pg.12.

[13] Myrow, pg.12

[14] Conaiser, Kelly R. "A picture is worth how many words? (the confusing symbols found in computer icons)", Lotus 8 (Oct 1992) : 78.

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