Scott Rosenberg, in discussing the new version of Microsoft Word, makes the following observation about icons:
Maybe I’m unusual, but I have always found the dizzying array of toolbar icons in Office programs profoundly unhelpful. Icons are fine when they are small in number and used constantly (think of the stop, reload, back and forward buttons on your browser). But when you have a multitude of complex tools and features, as in Word, you never really get the hang of what all those little hierogylphs really mean.
I was thinking about the applications I use, and how often I wait on the tool tip to figure out what an icon actually does. The other day I was using an application that I don’t use very often, and I had to wait over every icon to get some of the most basic things done. Part of that was my unfamiliarity, and the other part was that the icons just weren’t very well designed, so their use was not obvious.
On the other hand, pulldown menus are no pleasure cruise, either. When I’m using Microsoft Word or some other feature-heavy application, I almost always find it difficult to remember which menu I need to scour for whatever it is I want to do. At least with icons I can see them all at once and make an educated guess based on appearance and context when I’m searching for a feature.
I’d also be interested to know how many different toolbar buttons people recognize on sight in any complex application that they use. I am extremely familiar with Eclipse, having used it daily for many years at one time. The toolbar in the Java perspective has 24 icons with no files open and at least 27 if I’m editing a Java file. I use five of them regularly. I recognize maybe 10 or 12 of them. Looking over them now, I see that most of them offer functionality that I usually access via the keyboard or via context menus.
I don’t really have any conclusions to offer here, other than that it seems like user interfaces with a lot of redundancy make sense. In Eclipse, most features can be accessed from a toolbar, from pulldown menus, from context menus, and via the keyboard, and I use a mixture of those methods depending on which feature I’m using. I’m sure if you talked to another Eclipse user, they’d access the same features in completely different ways. That’s one good reason why getting rid of the pulldown menus in Office may not make the most sense. If I’m used to enabling and disabling “Track Changes” from the pulldown menu, it doesn’t matter if I can do it from the Ribbon, or a button, or the keyboard, learning a new way to approach the problem is going to slow me down.