This article is a bit misogynistic, but does a good job of showing how interfaces like Australis are actually terrible for average users. Though it is about web interfaces, it applies to any user interface.
We assume everyone knows what a save icon does. My mother used floppy disks for a few years but has undoubtedly forgotten all about their functionality. I see interface after interface that use only icons for actions such as “New document”, “Copy”, and “Delete”. Sometimes I’ll be walking her through some sort of interface over the phone and I’ll tell her to delete a file, only to realize that “Delete” is an icon. I’ll have to tell her at that point to search for some icon that looks like a trash can or an “X” or something. I’ve heard her say something genius after finding it like “Why doesn’t it just say ‘Delete’?”.
Icons are completely antagonistic to the thought process of the average user. (I wish there were a better term than “average user” or “regular user” because in my experience the “average” user is 80 or 90 percent of users.) They simply don’t understand what icons do, even after repeated use, and thus are afraid to click on them for fear of something unexpected occurring.
And when something unexpected does occur – like the old interface being nuked and replaced with cryptic one, à la Australis – regular users are paralyzed and then jump ship (how do you like them mixed metaphors?).
Understand that if you are redesigning a website that has loyal users, drastically changing an interface on them means they have to relearn all of the links and menus, and that will probably drive them away in frustration.
My partner’s mother did not know what the standard play/pause/stop buttons did in Winamp even after having seen them for at least forty years in other contexts. And guess what? This is completely normal. I am sure everyone reading this blog knows what they do. Not one regular user reads this blog, though. That, like the Mozilla devs, is a self-selection issue that leads to poor design.
That smart people are often only smart about the very, very tiny arena that they know something about should be explored more, in all areas. But that’s a much harder problem, I think.