How designers think about ‘Save as…’

In a short survey we analyzed the association for a couple of newly introduced 'Save as...' icons compared to the classic floppy symbol.

The metaphor of a floppy for Save is one of the most controversially discussed and challenged icons. There are haters who argue that many younger people never have seen a floppy (except at the Save icons). And there are lovers who favour the clear and unique depiction of the floppy.

The German newspaper ‘Stuttgarter Zeitung’ and the ‘Stuttgart Region Economic Development Corporation’ ran a competition to design a new icon for ‘Save as…’: http://speichern-unter.net/ (German only webpage). The task was simple: Design an icon for Save-As. Thousands of suggestions have been submitted, most likely overwhelming to the organizers as well.

Approaching the ideas

Looking at the bunch of ideas we got thought that a categorization makes sense. We grouped icons by the metaphor that the designer might had in mind (examples are chosen randomly from the sample).

Arrows

Arrow Icons

  • Arrows and check-marks
    Designers seem to love arrows. Many icons consist of a downward pointing arrow or convey mainly on arrow like symbols. The idea behind is that Save is an action

    Checkmarks

    Icons with checkmarks

    where users put something into a container (this container varies largely). Similar to the arrows, a check mark is very common. The designers might have a finalization or affirmation in mind, saying something like ‘Action conducted successfully’.

Storage

Storage metaphor

  • Storage
    The next big category is the medium. Several submitted proposals still trust in the floppy, more or less symbolic. Other ideas want to associate Save with an USB stick, chips (mostly as known from SD cards), hard discs, compact discs, and clouds (we tried to sort this list by the number of items in the category).
Text

Icons using text

  • Text
    Other metaphors trust in text. Locks, keys, and safes are used quite often to indicate the safety aspect of the Save action (whereas a safe might have literal reasons). The letter S was suggested very often, disregarding that the label in languages other than English (Save as) or German (Speichern unter) does not start with S, for instance French (Enregistrer sous). Funny in this respect is the idea with a squirrel whose tall is inverted S shaped (there are at least three participants with this idea!).
Memory

Utilizing memory

  • Memory
    Surprisingly often a brain was suggested as metaphor. The idea is obviously to memorize stuff. And consequently elephants must not be missed due to their proverbial long term memory. Those icons reveal the problem with size and level of detail: the submitted images had to have a size of 275 px, but toolbar icons usually have only 22 by 22 px. And a brain that is resized to 22 pixels does not differ from a cloud, for example.
Abstract

Symbolic approaches

  • Symbols
    Last but not least we have a large number of icons that are designed symbolic or are mainly abstract. If an established metaphor should really get replaced it might be a good idea to introduce an abstract symbol. By doing so you trust in learnability – and in the fast technical development: All concrete icons may be outdated tomorrow.

Official Evaluation

Evaluating all the ideas cannot be done in a definite or complete manner. Due to the huge amount of submissions it is just a subjective impression, probably ignoring some great ideas. The organizers ran the evaluation in two steps: first the users were asked to vote. That was done by presenting some randomized icons with the option to up-vote as many icons as desired but each only once. However, publicity over social media was explicitly approved. (This might have significantly biased the result.)

Unfortunately the icons were presented in 275 x 275 pixels using an endless list (by scrolling down the content is being refreshed). As a thumb of rule from our icon tests we recommend to have at least 100 values for a valid result. This was not possible for this large data base.

In the second step the 20 most favoured icons have been evaluated by experts (10 from the amateurs and 10 done by professionals). And the winner presented today on world Usability Day is…  Check it on the page http://speichern-unter.net/ (or at table 1 below).

Objective Analysis

Our evaluation of icons is different as we measure quantitative data: error rate and response time. Since we do not have errors in this test, our result is just a table with the number of associations and the average response time. To compare the newly introduced icons with the well established floppy we added the respective symbol from the Oxygen icon set which is known to perform very well. Here are the results:

Table 1: Results from the icon test with different Save-As icons.
IconChosen [n]Response time [s]Official rank
20917.66-
5619.481
315.31
1927.391
1518.34
1518.87
1417.44
1124.19
517.27
526.99
2
413.11
27.17
02
0
03
0
0
0
0
0
03

Conclusion

The organizers write on their page: “The competition does not claim to set future standard for design. The major focus is on fun in creative dealing with the rapid changes in data storage and the usability of IT product.” From this point of view the competition was a full success.

Lesson two learned is that good design requires professional designers. There are so many aspects to consider beyond the metaphor. Technical skills are obviously required but one has to consider a common design language, a branding, color, accessibility and so on as well. It’s great to get supported with ideas and to receive input, but the final work should be done by experts.

And eventually we come to the resume, again, that a floppy is still a good symbol for Save or Save-As. It might be outdated as a physical object but has become iconic on itself. One the other hand, we appreciate the reflection on finding new symbols, but rather for other terms. And as usability experts we should point out that good icons don’t work on their own. The symbols have usually surrounding objects, so position and grouping is relevant, the access is supported by a tooltip which should be clear, and as third aspect the function itself needs to be known by the user. Learn more about this trilogy in ‘Semiotik in Usability. Guidelines for the Development of Icon Metaphors‘.