It's Like a Foreign Language
When I taught elementary school, one of my roles was to teach English language learners. Today, while helping adults feel more comfortable with their technology, I've noticed many parallels between understanding a language and understanding how computers, smartphones, and other devices work. Both have vocabulary words, of course, and both have rules to follow, or at least a generally-accepted way of functioning.
For example, in English, we place the adjective in front of the noun it modifies. In an email or text message, we hit a "send" button in order to deliver it to a recipient. Pressing "send" after we type seems a bit basic, but there's something else going on here that's less obvious. Where is that "send" button? It's hopefully placed on the screen in a spot where you might expect it: the upper right corner or the lower right, or in a bar across the top. If you aren't familiar with the typical places to look (the generally-accepted rules of the "language"), you might struggle with sending your message.
Icons As Words
Knowing where to look for the "send" button is only part of what you need to master. You also have to know what that "send" button looks like. The tech world loves icons. In fact, we see more and more ways of communicating like this in our society, even in non-tech places. Ever read the instructions for putting together IKEA furniture? It's all icons. No words. Unfortunately, different application developers and different device manufacturers come up with their own icons to convey the same things. I'll show you the most important ones you need to know.
While there are slight variations of these icons depending on whether you use Google, Apple, or Microsoft, etc., chances are, you're familiar with some form of the above icons. The one exception may be the "archive" icon. It's often confused with "trash." (Sending an email to "trash" will often result in its deletion after 30 days, whereas "archiving" something means you're keeping it, but getting it out of the Inbox.) Now, let's look at some that are a bit trickier:
Here are 2 of my favorites: "menu" and "more." If you're ever trying to figure out how to get to another part of a website, look for the "menu" icon. It's sometimes referred to as "the hamburger." If you're looking for more actions you can take on a site or app, such as printing or sharing, look for versions of the 3 dots.
And now for some really tough ones:
This is where icons can get downright frustrating. Let's say you want to share a funny picture on your iPhone with your friend. Depending on which app you're in, it may be any one of the top 3. And this is all on the same Apple device! If you're using Microsoft Windows, the "share" icon will look like the one in the lower left. If you're on an Android phone, look for that funny one with 3 connected dots (note: it doesn't have an arrow like the others, but does the same thing).
The Confidence That You Aren't Going to Break Anything
If you're learning a new app or device (i.e. the "language"), you can pair your knowledge of the icons with an understanding of the generally-accepted rules of how things should work. Let's go back to the example of wanting to share a photo or a webpage with a friend. What do you do if you don't see an obvious icon that says "share?" This is where many people freeze and give up, concerned that they'll break something. But I say, go ahead and just start tapping icons to see where they lead. People who are comfortable with their tech know that "it's got to be here somewhere." And, with a little bit of patience and exploration, they are almost always successful in finding what they need.
The Nonexistent Department of Icon Standardization
Until there are standardized regulations for having one icon for one function, and one place to find it, we are left to figure it out on our own. However, if you learn what the most common icons mean, you'll have a head start. This is the vocabulary part of learning the language of technology. To master the rules of the language, tap around on icons to see where they go. Exploration leads to understanding and feeling comfortable with your tech. Like learning any language, the more you practice, the better you get with it.