United Nations : An over-abundance of icons

Substituting navigation for icons leads to a confusing user experience

The feature

The United Nations Climate Change conference has been taking place in Madrid, organized by the UNFCCC secretariat.

The secretariat’s website has a page devoted to the conference.

The drop-down menu at the top of the site does not offer access to the deeper information on the conference.

Instead, underneath a large image banner on the page, there is a series of icons arranged in three rows. They are all labelled, and offer access to information such as the floor plan for the conference, newsletters, and even an app.

The takeaway

The use of icons may be an attempt to help non-native speakers navigate the conference material: the secretariat’s website is available in three languages, English, French and Spanish, but of course the conference is of global interest.

If so, it is only partially successful. While the icons are clearly drawn, they are not all immediately intuitive by sight alone: a problem common to many icon sets. They are labelled well – but non-native speakers may need to use their own browser or other translation tools on these in any case, defeating the purpose of the icons.

There is also some overlap between icons, for example the calendar and daily events ones are very similar, and ‘Speeches and Statements’ is identical to ‘High-level Segment’.

The bigger problem is that the icons are being used as a proxy for good navigation and signposting, rather than as a complement to add meaning and visual interest – see Zurich.com’s menu as a good example.

Much of the material the UN icons point to is held around the secretariat’s site: a combination of promotional boxes and simple links would have done the job better, allowing a hierarchy of importance to be communicated. Explanatory text could have also been added.

Better still, information could have been held in a devoted conference sub-section, with conventional access via clearly-written labels – and complementary icons - in the menu.

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First published 10 December, 2019
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