The Grossly Under-Rated Power Of Thumbnails & Icons

Delicious just did a design refresh of their home page and it’s now got some really delicious (heh) thumbnails. The world seems to have gone thumbnail crazy. Arc90’s link thumbnails tool is by far the most popular on Arc90’s lab.
I’m a big believer in icons, thumbnails and any other sort of bite-size visual cues to help people digest information. The biggest digestion challenges come when the information comes at you in big, sweeping globs. It’s hard to know what the hell is going on. As a result, we’re forced to make that strange squinty-face and read stuff. Reading takes time and some focus. You can’t step back from that glob and start to get a sense of what’s going. With simple visual cues like icons, colors, bolding and such, we put the user’s brain on a faster track.
Here’s a simple example of using thumbnails for lighter information digestion. Below is a screenshot of iTunes, focused on my collection of Radiohead albums:

Here’s the same view on Microsoft’s new Windows Media Player 11:

Now I know that this distinction isn’t groundbreaking, but let’s keep the user’s goal in mind. It is without a doubt easier to scan through my seven or so Radiohead albums in Windows Media Player because a well-recognized grouping – by albums – has been visually reinforced, not only by spacing out the various albums but by providing me with a familiar visual cue for each album: the album cover. In iTunes, I have to read. And reading takes more work.
So get out there and start thumbnail-izing and icon-izing. It’s a powerful way to provide your users with cognitive shortcut to digesting your information.

6 Comments The Grossly Under-Rated Power Of Thumbnails & Icons

  1. Sam Kaufman

    In this case, I have to agree with you, but there are situations where adding icons or thumbnails actually slows down the user. Menus, for instance, shouldn’t have icons. The eye will run over each life, left-to-right, and try to process all the information. Not only will the icon take as long to “read” as the text itself does, but it’s duplicate information! Worse, the icon is sometimes downright useless to the user, while the text never is.
    Anybody with an Ubuntu CD can boot the live demo and give it a shot. Read menus with menu icons turned on, and read them with menu icons turned off.

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  2. Nick Stath

    I like how your screen shots were ‘safely’ of Radiohead albums.
    Come on, Rich. Have some nerve and give us a shot of the Bell Biv Davoe album you have on there. Or the 2 Live Crew singles you stash under another name. And if it’s eye-catching thumbnails you’re really after, then why not treat us to shots of the Cannibal Corpse discography?
    I see your point, though. Check out The Internet Movie Database—they’ve gone thumbnail crazy over there, particularly on the Cast portion of the Main page for a given film. You have anything to do with this, sir?
    It’s a fine line—they’re often very welcome, making each link more of a ‘little world’ we’re about to enter. Otherwise, what the hell ever happened to reading?

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  3. Nick Stath

    I like how your screen shots were ‘safely’ of Radiohead albums.
    Come on, Rich. Have some nerve and give us a shot of the Bell Biv Davoe album you have on there. Or the 2 Live Crew singles you stash under another name. And if it’s eye-catching thumbnails you’re really after, then why not treat us to shots of the Cannibal Corpse discography?
    I see your point, though. Check out The Internet Movie Database—they’ve gone thumbnail crazy over there, particularly on the Cast portion of the Main page for a given film. You have anything to do with this, sir?
    It’s a fine line—they’re often very welcome, making each link more of a ‘little world’ we’re about to enter. Otherwise, what the hell ever happened to reading?

    Reply
  4. Tom D

    Your specific example works, Rich because you are using an album view and (happily) there are pre made icons available that match up with the albums. Looking at a music app in particular, there are different viws that would be enhanced by meaningful icons–album views, artist views are obvious. Genre views, instrument type, there are several which work if the organization is there. It’s much the same issue you have with file views on a drive. The “icon view” is meaningless when all of the items in a given directory have exactly the same icon…it’s a waste of space. On the flip side, if you have something like a Singles directory (or a playlist) where music isn’t organized by album you could end up with a view where you have a big “album icon” for just one track. ultiply that by 50 tacks off 40-50 different albums and your view becomes unmanageable.
    (I say in a directory, becaue I assume that no sane person allows itunues to mangle the organization of their mp3 library…but don’t get me started on itunes. I don’t have an ipod because I don’t want to be forced to use itunes) call me cranky…I need coffee.

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