Older Adults Accessibility Issue 6: Mystery Icons

Posted by Paul Crichton on 27 June 2017.

“I can’t stand mystery buttons. How am I supposed to know that three lines is the menu?”

Mystery icons have long been a problem on the web. Back in 1998, Vincent Flanders dubbed them, “mystery meat” navigation.

Older adults are not digital natives. So the issue for them goes beyond mystery navigation on individual websites, and extends to many of the icons that we are familiar with, like the hamburger, share and settings icons.

Older adults tend to be less confident and more conservative than younger users. They are less willing to click a button without being certain what it will do.

Does your website have a problem?

Check your website for icons that are potentially confusing without additional context. If you didn’t know Twitter, would you know what the Twitter bird icon meant? Remember too, even if it isn’t relevant to a user, they can’t possibly know that without understanding the meaning of an icon.


The issue here regards digital specific icons. Traditional, offline pictograms like those used for hospitals, danger and so on, present no such barrier when used in the correct context.

How to make things better

Icons are very useful for all sorts of users, so they should still be used. All that needs to be done to make things better for older adults is to add a text label to help identify its purpose.

Finally, when using icons, don’t get too creative with them. If you are going to use a symbol, use a well established version, and place them where a user would expect to find them.

Back to introduction


Related content

Introduction to digiboomers

If you want to find out more about the accessibility needs of older adults – digiboomers – and why they are an important demographic to cater for, complete the form, include your email address and request our introductory guide as a PDF or MS Word document.

Get the blog series as a PDF

If you want to get the whole of this blog series in one document, complete the form, include your email address and request the PDF or MS Word document.

Download the Digiboomers Reports