Re: Icons vs Buttons

Subject: Re: Icons vs Buttons
From: Robert Plamondon <robert -at- PLAMONDON -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 23 Jul 1996 11:44:25 PDT

>>Buttons are things you push; icons are things you look at.

>Then what is a button with a picture on it?

It's a button.

>>If you push it to make something happen, it's a button. In
>>computerese, "pushing"
>>means single-clicking with the primary mouse button. If you
>>double-click or use a different mouse button, you're doing something
>>else -- "launching," perhaps -- but not pushing.

>The double-click is not a distinguishing characteristic because a
>right-click on an icon (in some op-systems) invokes a menu from which
>opening, deleting, renaming, or some other action can be initiated. (I
>know it still takes two clicks but two serial clicks do not constitute a
>double click)

Exactly. Buttons can be pushed, while non-buttons are objects that are
manipulated in a more complex manner. A button represents the initiation
of a single, specific action. Icons represent whatever you want them
to represent; in GUIs, they typically represent active processes. Users
interact with processes in ways that are more complex than pressing a
button; thus, the button-pressing metaphor is missing when manipulating
them. A right-click or double-click -- not the button-pressing left-click
-- is used. The GUI designers got this one right. It's a shame to
muddy up the terminology and merge the terms that distinguish these

>>Icons are things you look at.

>I'm confused. Can't you look at a button?

Sure. But an unlabeled button can still be pushed, because pushability
is the defining characteristic of a button. I rode in an elevator the
other day that had blank buttons. I still got to my floor. There
were icons to one side of the buttons, which labeled them well enough.
Pushing the icons didn't do anything.

Thus, icons are noun things -- labels, symbols, representations of objects
or processes. Buttons are verb things. They initiate actions.

(Some people would claim that there is a fundamental difference between
text labels and graphics labels, and would claim that a text label is
a button, and a graphics label is an icon. I claim that this is silly.)

>>While pushability is inherent in the concept of buttons, there is no
>>implication of verbability in an icon.
>>An icon may just sit there and do nothing at all; an informative,
>>decorative, or random piece of graphics on the screen.

>It can also represent a collapsed or embedded application. In these
>cases they will do something once when selected.

>>Buttons are to be pushed; icons are to be viewed.

>Then what are radio buttons (also called option buttons)? Dialog boxes
>refer to single-select options as buttons (some even refer to checkboxes
>as buttons). You don't push them, you select them and the are filled (or
>checked). Action does not occur until the Cancel, OK, Rest or another
>button is depressed.

I assume that "radio buttons" are named after push-button station
selectors in old car radios. It's an obscure metaphor and an inappropriate
name. Presumably, the software guys don't understand switches very well,
or their terminology would have been better. Putting on my EE hat,
I claim that buttons represent momentary-contact SPST switches, such as
you would find on elevators (or in the reset switch on a computer).

"Radio buttons" represent an entirely different kind of switch; a
sustained-contact switch, such as an STDT toggle switch. The world
would be a kinder, gentler place if "radio buttons" had been called

>If icons are to be viewed then what are icons that uncollapse or launch
>an application?

They're icons. They are a representation of an application. You'll
notice that, in most GUIs, there's a difference between manipulating
the ICON and manipulating the application that it represents. Single-
clicking the icon does nothing in particular; dragging the icon just
moves the icon, and has no effect on the underlying application at all.
Manipulating the application through the icon uses mechanisms other
than button-pushing, such as popping up a menu and selecting an item
from it.

-- Robert
Robert Plamondon, President/Managing Editor, High-Tech Technical Writing, Inc.
36475 Norton Creek Road * Blodgett * Oregon * 97326
robert -at- plamondon -dot- com * (541) 453-5841 * Fax: (541) 453-4139

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