User experience and semiotics

Torresburriel Estudio
5 min readMar 6, 2024

Interfaces are everywhere. If we take a moment to observe, nearly every action we take, we find an iconographic system that helps us choose and complete our actions, no matter how basic they may be.

Take, for example, going up or down a floor using the elevator: each of these buttons represents a different option, depending on the needs of the “User.” This applies to many customs or actions, especially when we consider that we live in the information age: the digitalization and standardization of how we communicate or move through tools on our mobile devices confirm this rule.

Semiotics is the science that studies the life of signs within society.

However, to believe that interfaces are a product of the present (and the future) is to overlook our past. Clay tablets are considered the first reading interfaces, being among the first mediums physically imbued with a message intended for recipients.

With evolution, not only were the supports modified to be lighter (such as the transition from clay to papyrus or paper), but attributes were also added that expanded communication and the organization of messages, like the standardization of rules (such as the use of icons more recognized among groups or literacy, or texts in columns and hierarchical organization in lists). Or even the beginning of information indexing systems, like page numbering, the use of the “incipit” (exaltation of the first letter of a text with ornamental motifs, present in medieval manuscripts), or titles and names of authors to classify information.

These elements have shaped the message into the mold needed by users and have evolved enough so that many of these practices still exist in the digital interfaces of today.

The Semiotics of Interfaces

Carlos Scolari, an Argentine communication and media theorist, often states that “interfaces never disappear, they always get recycled and survive in other devices,” meaning that the structures of interfaces are molded according to the needs of users, preserving the same meanings.

Naturally, these meanings are preserved through the use of icons, representations of actions or aspects culturally recognized by close-knit groups and that can be applied in different forms:

  • Visuals: like the icon of a telephone, which we would know means to make a call.
  • Verbals: which recognize commonly known actions, such as “browse” or “explore” within a webpage.
  • Auditory: like the sound of a bell, which we would recognize as having received a message or notification.

Over time, computational interfaces have made it easier for users to understand information that could have been technologically limited, as we can see by looking back at the first computers with 1945 ENIAC electronics, and 20 years later, with a vastly reduced format, the personal desktop computers, the first graphical user interfaces Xerox GUI (Graphic User Interface).

ENIAC. Source: United States Army, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

While for users the way to analyze information has been simplified, it has become increasingly complex for interface designers to clarify information, adopting heuristic cues and techniques that analyze the communicational, semantic, and syntactic principles of messages.

Maintaining a clear message with universally recognizable models and icons represents an effort on the part of the interface creator who, just like the channel itself (as seen with the previously mentioned examples), also shapes the work of the design specialist. They must take into account not only the meaning but also how to integrate it into the channel, at the base.

Also, they must ensure that this element is understood in the context of the interface; otherwise, what is known as “meiosis of meaning” will not be achieved. Peirce’s triad emphasizes the importance of the medium, the interpreter, and the context in the interpretation of these signs, where each dimension of the triad will make sense in the other and not alone, gaining meaning through the subject’s perspective.

The IBM iceberg

In 1992, IBM visually presented the importance of design in ensuring the success of interfaces.

Representation of the designer’s model: the look-and-feel iceberg, by IBM (1992). Source: ResearchGate.

In this context, design implies not just visual presentation — which only represents a minimal value: user interactivity will contribute more value than aesthetics, being the key purpose of a user-focused interface. However, the foundations of an interface are not found here, but in ensuring that the meaning of the information needed by the user is found in their universal references, in finding the relationship of objects, icons, and visual metaphors present in the interface with their mental references.

Being the task least known by users (as it involves deeper and less visual considerations), the user experience designer must focus their attention on how to achieve this task. The consistent use of heuristic principles can help the professional to anticipate the user’s mental models and thus provide signifiers or icons that they can locate in their references effectively. Some examples of principles to consider are:

  • Law of Prägnanz — Users’ perception tends to simplify more complex shapes to reduce mental effort. Therefore, simplifying iconography or actions within an interface will make them more memorable to users.
  • Fitts’s Law — According to psychologist Paul Fitts, “the time to acquire a target is a function of the distance to and size of the target.” Therefore, we must highlight those interactive elements (such as buttons or icons) with sufficient resources so that they can be quickly recognized.
  • Defaults and Jakob’s Law — Let’s not complicate things. Iconographic elements that best represent actions ensure that the user can understand beforehand what they are used for. If these models already exist in similar models, in other interfaces, looking at those models will help us understand more effectively how we should apply the iconic models.

In conclusion, when we talk about user experience and semiotics, we are really exploring how signals and symbols in our interfaces help us navigate the digital world more intuitively.

For UX Designers, the challenge is clear: we must delve into understanding how we communicate and perceive these signs to create interfaces that not only look good but also feel right and are accessible to everyone.



Torresburriel Estudio

User Experience & User Research agency focused on services and digital products. Proud member of @UXalliance