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When replacing obsolete icons…
Apr 2008

When replacing obsolete icons…

One of the most sensitive subjects in a product revision project is the management of reactions to change, the transition between old and new.  How do we ensure that users, accustomed to using a product a certain way, will accept a new mode of interaction and forget the old?  The challenge is even more important when the product is used by the general public and we must change something that is already embedded in the collective unconsciousness, even if it’s arbitrary.

Desktop application icons are a perfect illustration of how hard it can be to minimize the obstacles of change.  In January 2008, Microsoft launched a new version of Office for Mac.  It was a totally new interface, modern and efficient… but something never seems to want to evolve, the diskette icon used to save files.  In fact, the Windows version also pays tribute to this prehistoric device.

Apple stopped including disk drives in 1998 (10 years ago) and Dell no longer produced machines with these devices since 2003 (5 years ago).  This means that the image of the floppy disk already means nothing to most 20 year-olds and younger.  Why is this icon still around?

Anything that becomes a standard creates a natural barrier to change.  Those who have been using this function since it made sense always know what it means.  Those who can’t attach the image to any sort of hardware concept eventually learn to associate the image to the action, regardless of whether it makes sense or not.  What they remember is the final result associated with the icon.

To get an idea of what I mean, look how odd it looks to see the disk replaced by another icon in the NeoOffice toolbar, the opensource version of Office for Mac:

(actually, this situation is even worse, as there isn’t even a label under the icon)

Technological evolution makes sure that all icons that refer to physical objects will become obsolete sooner or later (just think about the phone and microphone used in Skype, or the envelope used in several e-mail applications).

But can we eventually change this?  When will we finally get rid of these obsolete icons?  Personally, I say never; maybe we have to wait until the actions themselves are no longer necessary and disappear, taking their icons with them.  What about you?  Do you have any other ideas?
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