What should you do
Well the first piece of advice is don’t use many icons. Icons aren’t flair, you don’t need to sprinkle little pictures around your design just to make it look pretty. They should be used to enhance a user experience in assisting users to complete tasks. Use the icons already in the UX vernacular, but if you encounter a situation where you need to design a new icon … you probably shouldn’t. Users struggle to understand icons for more obscure concepts. These mystery meat images leave users confused and often hesitant to make a selection because of the unknown ramifications of selecting an unknown icon.
Microsoft faced this problem when preparing for Outlook ‘98. Most users were not using the existing toolbar because they didn’t know what the icons did. They tried redesigning some of the icons but still there was little adoption. Finally, labels were added next to the icons, and usage of the toolbar took off. Which leads to the next piece of advice …
Use labels. Icons with text labels perform better in usability tests than icons without labels. Very few icons (print, save, close, etc.) are universally understood so outside of the easy ones people need labels to understand what they are looking at.
As for how many icons to use, using just a few icons employs contrast to your advantage to highlight certain tasks or information in your design. Too many icons blend in with the rest of the page and the icons lose their effectiveness. A page littered with icons is like a page of text in all caps: it ceases to lend emphasis through contrast and it just blends together.
For more UX best practices, download our paper on User Experience Best Practices for Data Analysis.