Re: Icons vs Buttons

Subject: Re: Icons vs Buttons
From: Jim Grey <jimgrey -at- IQUEST -dot- NET>
Date: Fri, 19 Jul 1996 09:09:00 EST

Joy Switzer (joy -at- trio -dot- com) wants to button down a tricky problem:
>I have a new question the new documentation for a piece of software
>my co has developed we are confused on the use of the words "icons" and
>"buttons". We feel that an icon is a graphical representation of the action
>that will take place when you click it. A button has text on it to describe
>what it will do.

By your definition, numbered elevator buttons are actually icons. We're on
the 17th floor; you press an icon marked "17" -- a representation of the
action that takes place when you press it -- to get here. To qualify for
button status, the device must read, "Go to the 17th floor." (Then again,
the "Stop" and "Close Door" buttons are actually buttons by your definition.)

I checked _The Windows Interface: An Application Design Guide_ (Microsoft
Press, 1987, 1992; ISBN 1-55615-384-8). On page 103, it says, "Buttons are
graphical controls that initiate actions and change data object properties
or the interface itself." Although the book does not define an icon, it
seems safe to say that an icon is a kind of button, in that an icon lets you
initiate the action of launching a program or restoring a window.

Even more precisely, an icon is a graphic representation of something,
period. The little sun above the brightness control on my monitor is an
icon. The icon itself does nothing; the knob underneath is the control.
So, just as a button can contain an icon, such as any button in the Word
toolbar does, acting on the *button* launches an action.

However, in my experience (Mac, Windows, X/Mosaic), those things on your
desktop and in directory windows are called icons, even though they are,
strictly speaking, buttons. This convention emphasizes that these graphic
devices are actually links to programs or files.

One of my company's Windows products makes a good example. SmartPlus is a
collection of programs; it provides a toolbar that lets you start and switch
among the programs. To launch SmartPlus, double-click the SmartPlus icon on
your desktop. To launch one of the SmartPlus utilities, say the one called
Campaign, click the Campaign button on the SmartPlus toolbar. The Campaign
button, by the way, contains a small icon (a flying flag with our company
logo in it).

In short, if you call buttons that contain only a graphic an icon, you may
confuse readers, who have typically read icon to mean only those devices on
the desktop or in directory windows.

jim grey
jim grey |"Ain't nothin' better in the world, you know
jimgrey -at- iquest -dot- net|Than lyin' in the sun, listenin' to the radio!"

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