How abstract can an icon be? About Copy & Paste in LibreOffice

Functions without natural pendant need special attention, even the well known copy / paste. Designers have to analyze intrinsic functionality instead of simply visualizing computer nomenclature.

Several software functions do not perform actions that have an equivalent in the real world. Mostly this applies to support functions that are ordinary for experts but hard to understand for novices. Whereas users intuitively translate natural processing into business logic (if it fits) they have trouble with the technological IT surrounding.

An example is Copy & Paste. This functionality is implemented in almost every software providing the user with a clipboard. Following Wikipedia, “the command names are an interface metaphor based on the physical procedure used in manuscript editing to create a page layout”. We would like to scrutinize this statement. How do you think about that kind of short-term information storing in real world? Wouldn’t it be rather some kind of note that you write?

Results

The icon test reveals that not only novices struggle with those functions but normal users and experts as well. Results of the LibreOffice Icon Test are comparably weak for Copy and even worse for Paste (read about the methodology of testing icons).

Table1. Results of the Icon Test

Term Tango Oxygen
Copy 8.80 8.80
Paste 7.40 7.40

A detailed analysis of the icon-term assignments shows interesting mutual dependencies.

Table 2: Associations of term and icon in the icon test (% of all users)

Tango Oxygen
Term    
Copy 80% 11% 79% 13%
Paste 9% 74% 7% 73%

Copy is mixed-up with Paste by about 10% of the participants. The Oxygen icon for Copy was additionally chosen from 12% of the participants as representation for the term New.

Conclusion

Both, copy and paste are frequently used functions and consequently the results are somewhat alarming. The data shows a lot of mix-ups, which may be caused by diverse reasons.

A lot of users will use the function short-cut Ctrl + C / V or Ctrl / Shift + Ins and therefore might not know the icons by heart. On the other hand, the function Cut with its short-cut Ctrl + X is probably comparable to these functions and the scissor icon gets the best possible result of 10.0 in the icon tests.

Another reason might be the relatively similar icons. Dual features with antagonistic or corresponding function will always cause difficulties and mix-ups. In both sets Copy is displayed by two sheets of paper lying on top of each other. Paste is just the same except that there is only one sheet on top of a clipboard. Additionally, in Oxygen there is no difference in size between the paper and the clipboard, which might explain the slightly higher mix-ups in this icon set.

The icons were obviously designed with the term ‘clipboard’ in mind. But this concept is a more technical and abstract, rather than a natural one and obviously misleads users. Additionally neither of the metaphors for copy or paste are based on an action found in nature or everyday life. So, if we find a metaphor that intuitively explains the function behind the icon it might reduce the mix-ups and increase the quality of the icons for these important actions.

Do you have suggestions for a more natural metaphor for copy and paste?