You probably use hundreds, if not thousands of gestures, keyboard commands and icons every day to navigate the web, perform various actions on a device and interact with others. Doing this in a skilled way is called interface literacy, and it’s an emerging literacy that faculty not only have to acquire themselves, but also must impart to their students. Sometimes students come into the classroom more fluent than we ourselves are, but for a wide variety of reasons, many students possess little to no interface literacy, let alone an interface fluency.

Acquiring interface fluency means that one can operate virtually any device or software provided that they use common icons. Of course, the use of common icons across devices and platforms is still an emerging phenomenon, but for the most part, certain kinds of icons can be assumed to have similar functionality.

Let’s look some of the more common Google Apps for Education icons; in working with many new users I’ve noticed that an icon is nearly invisible (and therefore powerless) if one doesn’t know that the icon represents a larger set of commands (what we call a contextual menu).

interface for more apps Get info menu icon stoplight menu for more
The so-called “waffle”. Click or touch to see other Google Apps. The information circle. Click or touch to see more information about a file. A “hamburger” menu. Touch or click to see a more top-level menu. The “stop light”. Touch or click to gain access to more options. Easy to miss but useful.

Each of these, when touched or clicked, leads to more. If you see these in Google Drive (either in a browser or on a smartphone), use them to see more or conduct further action.

Other icons are used to control sharing and collaboration in Google. These are common:

share your screen icon share a document folder or other item icon share a thing Add an item icon
Share your screen with someone. Seen in Google Hangouts. Share a document, folder, or other item. Available in most apps. Share a thing (more diverse options). Add a person, content, or item. Highly dependent on context.

This is just the tip of the icon iceberg. Even if you’ve been using Google apps for a while, try clicking these to see what they do. To test your own literacy, try finding a web-based tool you’ve never used before and ask yourself: “Can I articulate what this icon will most likely do if I touch or click? How do I know?”

Interface literacy was a topic raised at a recent UAF eLearning faculty development event, iTeach2, in May. To find more opportunities for interesting discussions on topics like interface literacy, go to