I'm a developer in Melbourne, Australia, and co-founder of Hello Code.

Published Tue 01 January 2008

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The humble magnifying glass

There are user interface elements that don't have a corresponding "interface" in real life — things like application windows, for example. On the other hand, elements like tabs have been pulled directly from real life counterparts that people are already familiar with and can instinctively pick up. Everyone's flipped through a filing cabinet or a set of manila folders.

But are all of these elements relevant any more?

The first thing that came to mind was our friend, the incredibly common magnifying glass.

Well, common within user interfaces, that is. I personally haven't seen a magnifying glass in real life since I was about nine. But it still persists as the most popular way to embody 'zoom' and 'search' actions.

That makes sense to us right now, but think about the link between 'searching' and a magnifying glass. Cartoon detectives hold an oversized magnifying glass to one eye when searching for clues — but that's about it. I've never had to opportunity to do the same in this life, sadly. So why is this element the most popular embodiment of searching? My opinion is, there's nothing better, and people are lazy :)

The other element that springs to mind is 'radio buttons'. This isn't an issue that's going to confuse users, really, because they'll call them whatever they want anyway. But think of the IT industry in ten years or so. Graduates fresh out of university will probably have no idea where the name comes from.

I guess none of this is a real problem, because the interface elements themselves are so pervasive that there's no need for a real life counterpart any more. But still, it's interesting to think that things which were made to mirror real life are now distinctive elements in their own right.

Can anyone think of any other elements which don't mirror real life counterparts any more?

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