Summer 1998

Netscape: I’m incomprehensible!

James Souttar
Sidebar

It is probably unfair to criticise Netscape Navigator’s use of icons, since it thoughtfully provides options for the visual person (captions off), the verbal (icons off) and the undecided (captions and icons both on). Still, Navigator 4.0 provides an extraordinary illustration of the drawbacks of rampart icons.

What do combinations of grey dots and pale blue downward arrows mean? It certainly took me a while to figure out that they are controls to show or conceal the elements to their right. And when I “got it,” it seemed like a groaningly awful metaphor dragged in wholesale from product design. Netscape forfeited much goodwill in my eyes by such wanton disregard of precedent or explanation.

And what is wrong with Navigator’s arrows? Surely an arrow is one icon that should be immediately recognisable? Netscape decided, however, that these should have fiddly little bits of shadow and a scattering of gratuitous grey specks that make them look more like some kind of broken prehistoric flint arrowhead than a directional pointer. The bizarre contortions that the Reload arrow has been put through (is Reload really an arrow kind of function?) are particularly disturbing. How many of us would really know that clicking on this image refreshes the screen contents?

Toolshed for Home? Or where you might look for a toolbox? And what does Home mean in this context?

Torch for Search? Do they mean a data search is like trying to find the fuse box in the cellar? Really? Signposts for Guide? But surely this is a “navigation” image, a function that you would expect to take you to other destinations, not provide you with help understanding the program? Something that looks like a television turned on end turns Images on and off? Without the caption, I would never have resolved this cryptic association.

There is something that looks suspiciously like a toaster. But I am being disingenuous – this must surely be a printer. Why it cannot resemble any known models of desktop printers, however, remains a mystery.

By contrast, the text-only form of Navigator’s window is fairly unambiguous – at least to someone familiar with simple computing terms. But two stubborn icons remain, though. The padlock, bottom right will probably be recognised by most people as implying “security status,” but the green-and-yellow thing next to Location is totally obscure. Is it some kind of eraser?

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