Do We Need A New Metaphor For Saving?


If I asked you to click on the following icon, what would you expect it to do?

Odds are good that you said “Save whatever I’m working on”.  A thought struck me a few months ago when I was working in an unfamiliar GUI and needed to save my config before I went to lunch.  I didn’t know what the keyboard shortcut was, and the buttons didn’t have text labels.  Instinctively, I looked for the ubiquitous floppy disk icon, and sure enough it saved the config.

If you’ve been in technology for a while, you know what that picture is.  More importantly, you recognize the metaphor that it represents.  When we click on that icon, whether it be in MS Office or any other GUI toolbar, we expect that icon to save our document or our configuration or whatever the focus of our efforts might be.  It’s a metaphor that has been drilled into our heads ever since we first started “saving” documents to a 3.5″ floppy disk back in DOS (or other older OSes).  For grins, why don’t you see if you can still buy a 3.5″ floppy disk.  Go ahead, I’ll wait…

Back so soon?  Couldn’t find one, could you?  Floppy disks have gone the way of their larger 8″ and 5.25″ cousins.  They are practically impossible to find.  I still carry a couple in my backpack for strange emergencies, but they are starting to get old and unreadable.  I still have a 3.5″ drive on my desktop PC, but it’s more for legacy reasons that anything else.  The last thing I even used it for was a BIOS update, but since those are done in the OS now, I don’t even need it for that.  I remember the uproar a few years ago when PC manufacturers started removing them from systems.  Now, finding a drive is next to impossible.

Now extend that idea further.  I have a young son who has never seen a floppy disk.  How am I supposed to explain to him what that little icon means?  He’s going to grow up saving documents to USB drives or network shares, or even…the cloud.  He’ll know what that button does because he will be taught to save his documents with it.  He won’t understand why that icon means “save” though.  He won’t remember the sound of the drive head skittering across as it reads and writes data.  He won’t hear the anguished sound of a drive that is reading a bad disk screeching over and over as it tries to find data that isn’t there.  He won’t shout in anger as he finds out the file he needs to save is 1.6MB and he can’t save it to the disk.

So, for the upcoming generation, do we need to change our save metaphor?  Should we change the icon in the next version of Office something that newer users can relate to?  Maybe a safe icon?  In most applications I’ve used, as safe icon is used to denote a backup option.  Or how about a cloud?  I don’t know about you, but teaching my users that preserving their data involves launching it into the Great Unknown Cloud doesn’t necessarily sit well with me.  Maybe a USB drive, which has now become the de facto portable storage device?  My issue with that is the icon wouldn’t be distinctive at smaller resolutions.  Add in the fact that USB drives don’t come in one universal size or shape, and you might just end up confusing your users.

Tom’s Take

Maybe we don’t need to change our metaphor for saving documents.  Most people today understand what happens when they push the little blue square with the little white square inside it.  I’m afraid that we will eventually reach a point where the context behind the icon will be long gone and people will just be pushing it because they know that if they do, the term paper they’ve been writing doesn’t go KABOOM!  Most of the menus have already done away with the floppy disk metaphor, and power users know that CTRL+S will accomplish the same thing.  Until we can find something universal that speaks to everyone and says “Click me to save your document”, I suppose we’ll have to carry on with our little floppy disk.  Just remind me to put one in a museum somewhere so I can show my son what Daddy used to keep his WordPerfect for DOS documents on.

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5 thoughts on “Do We Need A New Metaphor For Saving?

  1. We haven’t changed our phone icons either, though there are probably high-school graduates by now who have never seen a phone like that. Sometimes the secondary meanings we attach to an image outlive the original.

  2. Hmmm, I’ve never thought of this before. My question would be, does every button need a ‘reason’ behind it or would the 3.5″ floppy disk just become the symbol/icon for ‘save’. I think your post goes deeper in to what a symbol/icon really represents. I think there’s a lot of symbols we use to represent things that are no longer relative to what they represent in modern day.

  3. We still call the remote ‘the clicker’ – they haven’t made the c lick sound since the late 70’s. We all ‘dial’ a phone, but we have been touch-tone only since the mid 80’s. So I don’t think the icon needs to change, it will just represent arcane knowledge useful in some future version of Trivial Pursuit…

  4. Pingback: Back From the Pile: Interesting Links, April 1, 2011 – Stephen Foskett, Pack Rat

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