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Why text is often better than icons in your user interface

I love Instapaper. It’s probably one of the top 5 most used apps on my phone. But recently, they made a UI change that has dramatically impacted the usability (in a bad way) of their otherwise fantastic app.

When you highlight text in Instapaper, a tooltip pops up providing you with some task options: copy, highlight, share, define, and so on.

Historically, these options were simple text descriptors. Now they’re icons. And the icons make no sense whatsoever.

A screenshot of Instapaper's new tooltip options

Sharing is relatively obvious if you already know the iOS default icons, and highlighting is pretty straightforward to me. But the rest forced me to stop and think for a minute. And when I’m trying to seamlessly read and move through an article, breaking my flow is the last thing I want my reading app to do.

I’m not saying you should never use icons, but generally speaking, plain text is more effective at communicating your goal than a non-standardized, abstract icon will be.