Mozilla

What do icons mean? (Part 1)

June 8th, 2006

Here’s a question with both philosophical underpinnings and a concrete set of product implications. The philosophical side of this question includes questions such as:

  • how does a consumer know what web services he or she is requesting?
  • How important is consumer clarity?
  • How do we encourage clarity across a networked base of products?
  • If consumer clarity is important, how do we get this?
  • Is it possible to provide consumers this level of clarity without some organized control mechanism?
  • Can these issues be managed through a community-based process? Or is a more formal legal structure useful?
  • Is community leadership enough, or is an ultimate decision-maker necessary?

The concrete example here is the RSS icon that’s been in Firefox for some time now. Mozilla Firefox includes an icon that represents the availability of an XML based RSS feed. When you click on the icon in the location bar of Firefox you are able to add an RSS feed just as one adds a bookmark. When you click on a bookmark identified with the RSS icon (a “live bookmark” in our parlance) you see the recent entries from that RSS feed. A number of web sites use the same icon to help consumers recognize the presence of an RSS feed that can be added to Firefox or an alternative piece of software that understands RSS feeds (such as a “feed reader”).

A while back Microsoft approached us about using the Mozilla RSS icon in the upcoming version of its browser. We thought that having multiple software products use the same icon to represent the presence of an RSS feed would be helpful to consumers. It would provide a standard visual clue for consumers and provide clarity. Of course, this only works if the icon actually represents something reasonably crisply and accurately. If a single icon comes to be used for many different things then there’s not much benefit to consumers, and might even be some disadvantages. (For example, it would not help consumers to click on the so-called RSS icon and end up downloading some wildly different format.)

So what is the best method of promoting the use of this icon by many players and still have the icon mean something clear and accurate to consumers? In an effort to keep my posts to a digestible length I’ll describe the methods we’ve thought though in the next post.

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