One of the benefits I’ve found from spending time helping train people who are not very computer illiterate is it exposes the assumptions we build into our website or applications. A while back Apple updated the Mail app and removed the text labels by default.
As someone who uses Gmail daily, I appreciate the minimalist layout free of clutter. But when this is introduced to a non-technical user, it causes confusion. I’m concerned that we are sometimes allowing a desire for a minimalist design to go to far. Removing visual clutter and noise like unnecessary gradients and stock images that don’t add anything can be a big help in improving the usability of an application, but if you aren’t careful you can end up removing important visual clues.
Fortunately both Google’s Gmail and Apple’s Mail provide tool tips which helps, but a new user will have to mouse over each icon to find what they are looking for if they can’t make sense of the icons. When designing interfaces we need to be aware of the impact this has on users. For example in both of the screenshots above which icon is for marking a message as spam?
Then again, even using a text label can sometimes be confusing to a user, so you have to use your best judgement based on testing with your target users. And in the case of Apple’s Mail app, you can actually turn the text labels back on which I’ve done for several people who’ve asked me about what the icons mean.