Journal of Software Engineering and Applications, 2013, 6, 610-622
Published Online November 2013 (
Open Access JSEA
Icons: Visual Representation to Enrich Requirements
Engineering Work
Sukanya Khanom, Anneli Heimbürger, Tommi Kärkkäinen
Department of Mathematical Information Technology, University of Jyväskylä, Jyväskylä, Finland.
Received October 16th, 2013; revised November 10th, 2013; accepted November 17th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Sukanya Khanom et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License,
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Adapting icons in requirements engineering can support the multifaceted needs of stakeholders. Conventional ap-
proaches to RE are mainly highlighted in diagrams. This paper introduces icon-based information as a way to represent
ideas and concepts in the requirements engineering domain. We report on icon artifacts that support requirements engi-
neering work such as priority types, status states and stakeholder kinds. We evaluate how users interpret meanings of
icons and the efficacy of icon prototypes shaped to represent those requirements attributes. Our hypothesis is whether
practitioners can recognize the icons’ meaning in terms of their functional representation. According to the empirical
data from 45 participants, the findings demonstrate the probability of providing users with icons and their intended
functions that correspond to RE artifacts in a novel yet effective manner. Based on these findings, we suggest that icons
could enrich stakeholders’ perception of the RE process as a whole; however, meaningful interpretation of an icon is
subject to the user’s prior knowledge and experience.
Keywords: Requirements Engineering; Icon; Culture; Stakeholder; Visual Language
1. Introduction
The growth in sophistication of human-computer interac-
tion (HCI) can be seen in graphical user interfaces (GUIs)
[1,2]. These interfaces have significantly reduced the
amount of typing needed when using a computer. Nowa-
days, icons are important visible representations of in-
formation. They range from device control and icons in
public to iconic communication systems assisting some
particular areas [3-7]. The use of icons to reflect objects
or actions is not new in modern computer-aided systems
or software packages. The icons era in interface and
screen design began with the Xerox Star computer in the
1970s and thoroughly bloomed with the onset of Apple
Macintosh in the mid-1980s. GUI rapidly turned into the
paramount user interface when Microsoft adopted varia-
tion of icons with its Windows system [1,2,8].
Because of the increasing presence of icons within
computer-intensive communication, it is necessary to
consider how icons are interpreted and the factors that
influence their effectiveness. In addition, because icons
are frequently used to supplement texts and overcome
language barriers, this makes the ability to recognize and
comprehend icons even more complex. In particular, in
requirements engineering (RE) the adaptation of appro-
priate icons can be difficult. The RE process typically
involves collaborations of people with different back-
grounds, roles and responsibilities, so different that they
appear to speak different languages and apply different
approaches for the desired outcomes [9-11]. Recently,
dozens of requirements methodologies and techniques
have been implemented and made available for practi-
tioners. However, the empirical evidence repeatedly re-
veals that RE is considered as one of the key contributors
to the failure of software [12,13]. This position creates a
challenge for researchers to find an uncomplicated and
easy-to-learn method that can enhance requirements ac-
tivities, reduce ambiguity and promote collaboration.
Even though icons have been accepted successfully in
HCI, information on the utilization of icons in RE is
scarce (e.g. [14]).
Our attempt is to refine icon-based information to sup-
port the tasks of RE stakeholders and to clarify how
readers recognize connotative meanings of icons, that is,
what the icon is intended to represent. There may be nu-
merous approaches to solve the problems encountered in
Icons: Visual Representation to Enrich Requirements Engineering Work 611
RE. This paper introduces one such approach with the
help of the following key concepts: cultural aspects, RE
artifacts and icon-based information. The cultural aspects
assist in building a cultural user framework with cultur-
ally adaptive user interfaces that adapt themselves to the
user’s background. RE artifacts provide a skeleton for the
scenarios of requirements activities that can be charac-
terized by icons, such as attributes, stakeholders and rela-
tionships. Attributes are the properties that distinguish
one requirement from another, and they establish a con-
text and background for each requirement. Stakeholders
are the persons or systems that have the purpose of
achieving goals and that take action to achieve them.
Relationships signify the correlation between two or
more requirements. All RE artifacts are patterned as
static elements. This type of patterning means that all
users visualize requirements features or functions in the
same manner. Icon-based information is designed in
visually supporting pieces of RE artifacts that go beyond
an ordinary textual description. Unlike RE artifacts that
are stationary, icon-based information is dynamic de-
pending on the users’ cultural background. The deviation
of icon presentations specific to cultural preferences can
be seen for example, in how the attached icon for high
priority is illuminated. Users from Europe might experi-
ence the interface with purple-colored icons, but users in
Asia may contemplate the interface with yellow-colored
icons [15].
To the best of our knowledge, icon-based information
is the first approach that tries to represent icons in RE
and that is able to adapt its interface to the preferences
according to the user’s cultural background. Our research
question explores how well practitioners can predict the
meaning of icon representations. To answer this question,
this paper evaluates icons that represent priority types,
status states, stakeholder kinds and relationships. In our
study, icon-based information was tested with 45 par-
ticipants from Finland. Our findings have the potential to
inform the development of unambiguous requirements
and avoid the aforementioned problems. Consequently,
our contributions are as follows: First, we present a
theoretically grounded approach for icon-based informa-
tion in RE and adapting its interface by cultural back-
ground. We propose a cultural user framework to ap-
proximate a person’s cultural preference and intertwine
RE artifacts with their prospective iconic representations.
Second, we empirically evaluate those icons’ meaning
and demonstrate whether icons are able to characterize
RE artifacts. We expect that the role of iconic informa-
tion used in RE could facilitate the work of business us-
ers and software developers in all phases, from elicitation
and negotiation to validation.
In the following section, we introduce the previous
work on which we have based our method for designing
a concept of icon-based information. In Section 3, we
describe our research approach. We develop three ar-
tifacts that demonstrate the approach and in Section 4,
we describe its stepwise nature. In Section 5, we describe
an empirical evaluation of icon-based information. Next,
we discuss our results and recommendations for improve-
ment. Last, we propose future work and present our con-
2. Related Work
We review the relevant work on three questions: What
prominent methods are regularly employed in RE? What
icon applications already exist? How can we understand
how cultural aspects affect icon perception?
2.1. The Nature of Iconic Communication in RE
and Other Environments
The de facto standard of visualization techniques that
have broadly converged in RE are diagram and graphical,
such as Unified Modeling Language (UML) and goal-
oriented models. UML is one of the conceptual modeling
tools in software engineering to represent static and dy-
namic phenomena of user requirements [16,17]. The
goal-oriented model is a paradigm for eliciting, evaluat-
ing, elaborating, documenting and analyzing software
requirements [18,19]. Nevertheless, the empirical evi-
dence (e.g. [14,17,20]) has revealed some shortcomings
of these techniques, such as the problematic use of ab-
stract shapes that have articulately conventional mean-
ings which must be learnt. Iconic visualization is one
modality recommended to be employed in enhancing
cognitive effectiveness for RE notation [14]. However,
the applicable icons in RE can be considered because
they are pervasively used in toolbars and menu bars, but
not in the requirements engineering context itself.
Over the decades, icons have been at the center of hu-
man-computer interaction (HCI). While concrete icons
are believed to be effective in graphical user interfaces,
abstract icons are judged to be less effective because they
do not represent real-world objects [21]. Interface de-
signers repeatedly use concrete icons because of the
strength of their relation between icon and function.
Notwithstanding, abstract icons can also be utilized in the
interface as they strengthen icon-referent relations by
producing a less pictorial representation that is meaning-
ful to the user [21,22]. Within the domain of HCI, the
methods of cognitive psychology are commonly fol-
lowed (e.g. [14,23,24]). The cognitive factors of icons
embody the cognition of visual information and the asso-
ciation of connection. The effects on user cognition are
based on a range of characteristics such as color, shape
and size [25]. By improving the usability of icons, the
hope is to improve the interactive interface between peo-
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Open Access JSEA
ple and machines.
In crisis situations, icons have been exploited in facili-
tating auxiliary communication among multifaceted users
[26,27]. Icon-based communication interfaces have been
developed to represent concepts and ideas in crisis envi-
ronments by providing icons such as explosion, victim,
and ambulance that for a crisis observation interface.
Those icons are created to conform to ontology-based
knowledge, W3C-OWL [28], by defining a case for each
icon; the icon victim contains number, location, and
status, for instance. This crisis observation interface pro-
vides iconic symbols, geometrical features or icon strings.
Geometrical shapes, such as arrows, lines, ellipses, and
rectangles, can be used to indicate a distinctive area, an
object, an event, or a location.
2.2. Cultural Influences on Iconic Perception
Culture has a crucial role in the use of information and
communication technology. Information system research
has long admitted that cultural difference can inhibit the
successful use of information technology [15,29-31]. The
major finding from the existing literature on cultural dif-
ferences and icon recognition is that there are differ-
ences of modality that groups of users have regarding
what icons are. Cultures have different degrees of con-
texts: some cultures are determined to be high context
whereas others are considered to be low context. Context
refers to the amount of information given in communica-
tion. In high-context communication, most of the mean-
ing is in the context. By contrast, in low-context commu-
nication, most of the meaning is in the transmitted mes-
sage. Problems and conflicts emerge when people from
high- and low-context cultures communicate with each
other [32]. The differences have mostly been considered
on national or organization levels. We distinguished the
characteristics between countries based on cultural theo-
ries (e.g. [15,29,33]). Hofstede has distinguished five
dimensions of power distance (PDI), individualism
(IDV), masculinity (MAS), uncertainty avoidance (UAI),
and long-term orientation (LTO). Power distance, for
example, describes the extent to which the hierarchies
exist and are accepted by the members in a society.
Within countries (e.g. Thailand) that have been assigned
a high power distance score, inequalities are believed to
be much more acceptable in society than in low power
distance countries (e.g. Finland and Australia). The peo-
ple in highly individualist countries (e.g. Finland and
Australia) are usually seen as more independent from a
group. In contrast, people in collectivist countries (e.g.
Thailand) often see themselves as part of a group. The
third dimension, masculinity, refers to a high preference
for competitive achievement (high masculinity) versus
low preference (femininity). The degree to which the
members of society tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity is
inversely reflected by UAI, that is, people from high un-
certainty avoidance countries prefer less ambiguity than
those in low uncertainty avoidance countries. The fifth
dimension, long-term orientation, measures how people
perceive time. In LTO countries, people are comfortable
with sacrificing for long-term benefit, but in countries
with short-term orientation people are more focused on
immediate results. In Table 1, we have summarized the
rules for a cultural interface based on Hofstede’s theory
and human-computer interaction components such as
color, appearance and contents [15,29,33-35]. The table
lists the influences as high or low scores.
3. Research Approach
We employed the research methodology of design sci-
ence [36,37] to construct icon-based information in RE
context (see Figure 1). We operationalized our three
research problems (see number 1 in Figure 1). First, re-
quirements identification means the challenges of the
capability of a system’s stakeholders to express their
needs concisely and concretely. In other words, we can
say that requirements are difficult to capture in the situa-
tion where there is a communication gap in RE between
business teams and development stakeholders. Secondly,
requirements complexity refers to the difficulty of under-
standing, communicating and reviewing the requirements.
Thirdly, requirements volatility refers to the stability of
requirements, which are easily changed as a result of
environmental dynamic or individual learning.
We then defined solid objectives to inform a potential
solution to the aforementioned problems (see number 2
in Figure 1). Our aim is to find a solution that benefits
Table 1. Relations between five dimensions and use r interaction design variables.
Low score High score
PDI Less structure data Supportive message Informal representative Complex structure data Strict error message Formal representative
IDV High context Colorful interface Low context Tediously colored interface
MAS Multiple choices/tasks Social structure (relationship orientation)Limited choice/task Business structure (goal orientation)
UAI Complex information Abstraction representation Simple/precise information Daily representation
LTO Tolerance complex communication Preference for friendly communication
Icons: Visual Representation to Enrich Requirements Engineering Work 613
Figure 1. Design science research methodology.
RE stakeholders, particularly in multicultural environ-
ments. Large diversity in the cultural backgrounds of
stakeholders makes it indispensable to find ways easily
adapting interaction. For this adaption process, icon-
based information has three benefits.
The first benefit is to enable business users to specify
and communicate requirements. The second benefit is to
support system analysts or requirements engineers to
prioritize and resolve conflicts. The third benefit is to
enable RE stakeholders to investigate changes in re-
quirements and to continue tracking the requirements life
At the design stage (see number 3 in Figure 1), the
key insights of our approach can be obtained by defining
cultural user aspects, elaborating RE artifacts and refin-
ing icon artifacts. The details of these three artifacts are
described in the next section. We inferred the necessities
for our artifacts by drawing on theoretical foundations in
the interdisciplinary fields of RE, human-computer in-
teraction, and cognitive psychology. We further com-
bined knowledge and techniques from the research fields
of modeling languages and iconic communication in or-
der to make design decisions that principally affect the
direction of our approach.
In the evaluation phase (see number 4 in Figure 1), we
conducted two iterative evaluations: one with student
users and another with expert users. The first iteration
was tested by students in the RE course of the Depart-
ment of Mathematical Information Technology at the
University of Jyväskylä. The results of students from the
first iteration are detailed in Section 5. For the latter it-
eration, software companies in Thailand and Finland
(including Australia, if possible) will be the notable key
players. We took advantage of usability testing to evalu-
ate if a defined icon-based language supports the tasks of
RE stakeholders. The results of these two iterations will
be used to inform improvement possibilities.
4. Designing for Icon-Based Information in
the RE Domain
4.1. Modeling Requirements Engineering
We established a list of RE artifacts to support multicul-
tural environments. It is focused on delineating potential
activities that affect the entire RE process and that help
diminish ambiguity and misinterpretation. Figure 2
shows an example of how the central concept of re-
quirements artifacts is in relation to stakeholders, attrib-
utes, relationships and taxonomies. Each requirement is
proposed by a stakeholder and thus it is essential to re-
cord information about associated stakeholders. We
categorized the requirements into groupings (a taxonomy)
to facilitate better organization and management. The
eight types were created in order to tackle software qual-
ity and development process quality [38]. Business re-
quirement is an abstraction level that reflects a goal or
vision of the organization. Business requirements may
contain functional requirements that present the behavior
of a system under specific conditions. Otherwise, the
level also includes non-functional requirements that rep-
resent a quality attribute the system must have, such as
reliability, usability, efficiency, maintainability, or port-
ability. A requirement may be appended with business
rules, laws, policies, or procedures which constrain the
degree of freedom in delivering a solution.
The importance and urgency (priority) assigned to
every individual requirement helps moderate imprecise
conflicting requirements and assist the development team
in identifying the core requirements. A requested re-
quirement must be assigned one out of five priority levels.
A “very high” priority is both important and urgent, a
“high” priority is important but not urgent, a “fair” prior-
ity is neither important nor urgent, a “low” priority is
neither important nor urgent and can wait for the next
release, and a “very low” priority is for when the re-
quirement can be delayed for the next release or not im-
A preference score is attached to the initialized re-
quirement. It stands for the degree of preference or satis-
faction of the requirement for each stakeholder. The
score, arranged by each stakeholder, can be used to in-
spect the similarity of detected overlap among stake-
The classification of several statuses is more mean-
ingful to help stakeholders monitor the progress of each
single requirement throughout development process:
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Icons: Visual Representation to Enrich Requirements Engineering Work
Figure 2. Model of requirements management with relevant attributes.
“Propose” when the requirement has been initialed by an
authorized source; “Accept” when the requirement is
analyzed and key stakeholders agree to incorporate such
requirement; “Reject” if the requirement is proposed but
it is not planned for implementation; “Implement” when
designing, writing and testing the source code that im-
plements the requirement, and “Verify” when verifying
for the correct functionality of implemented requirement.
The existence of a relationship between two or more
requirements presents and reasons taxonomy of trace-
ability. The requirements can be associated to each other
through the link types: dependency or parent-child. Three
relationships of dependency (require, refine, and conflict)
have been delineated to qualify the association between
two or more requirements. Additionally, one requirement
can be divided into sub-requirements and those sub-re-
quirements are connected to their parent with a parent-
child link. The requirements engineer can use two types
corresponding to a logical combination—one is AND-
parent-child and the other is OR-parent-child. With an
AND relationship, unless all sub-requirements are satis-
fied, their parent requirement cannot be satisfied. On the
contrary, with an OR relationship, a parent requirement
could be satisfied when at least one sub-requirement is
4.2. Modeling Icon-Based Information
Although many visual features (e.g. size, shape and color)
have been allocated to aid the recognition, it is now ac-
knowledged that the correlation between recognition and
interpretation also plays a crucial role [39,40]. Interpret-
ing and comprehending a single icon is the simplest
process of reading iconographic communication, but
when icon interpretation occurs in isolation, it makes
icon interpretation too complex [39]. Currently, the out-
standing icon characteristic that has received the most
attention is icon concreteness. In this characteristic, icons
are used to represent real-world objects because they
happen to convey meaning accurately [23,39]. Abstract
icons, in contrast, represent information using visual
features such as shapes, arrows, and colors. We propose
that the RE context cannot be wholly represented with
concrete icons. As a consequence, we decided to com-
bine concrete and abstract icons to represent RE artifacts.
This combination is a plausible reason for making icon-
based language scalable, so that a single icon may share
the same semantic system.
In Figure 3, we depict an icon-based ontology. First
we need to derive the icon library of a visual notation
being designed to attach to the requirement itself, re-
quirements process and user interface. The main element
is the class Icon-based Information which defines icon
characteristics. To benefit scalability and variability, we
build libraries for Icon-based Information into two cate-
gories: separated and shared icon libraries. A MainLib
acts as a centric base and will store all icons that can be
shared among other three Libraries. UILib mainly col-
lects icons that will be utilized for user interface whereas
ProcessLib serves icons that associate to the process
output. Likewise, AttributeLib provides icons related to
attributes that can be adhere to every requirement.
Icons in these four libraries must be design in accordance
with cultural aspects of Hoftede’s dimensions. Other four
subclasses are: Position which characterizes the icon
orientation in X and Y axis, Size which exemplifies icon
size including 1D iconic elements (lines), 2D iconic ele-
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Icons: Visual Representation to Enrich Requirements Engineering Work 615
Figure 3. A set of icon classes and variables.
ments (areas), and 3D graphic elements (volumes), Style
which typifies the color and shape, and Link which
symbolizes link property such as curve and dashed lines.
For each icon notation that has to be conducted, we
must generate a final library. The library contains the
series of iconic symbols for both abstraction and con-
creteness, and visual sentences that symbolize the icon
notation. When designing iconic symbols, guidelines and
standards such as ETSI EG: 202-048 [41] and ISO/IEC
11581 [42] can guide us to the applicable design for a
particular purpose. Since the interpretation of icons is
subjective, the icons should be properly selected, devel-
oped and evaluated. Therefore, we applied the ETSI EG
201-379 [43] framework so that its direction would ulti-
mately solve such a challenge. To solve the problems of
misinterpretation and cultural prejudice, the test partici-
pants were chosen to include different nationalities.
Next, we refined the syntax specification of the iconic
symbols in accordance with the attribute-based represen-
tation approach, which must conform to the criteria for
proper visual syntax. When it is grounded in the attrib-
ute-based tactic, the grammar of icon-based language can
be classified, depending on the structure of its iconic
objects, in the way they can be composed in order to
form a visual sentence. The criteria for good visual syn-
tax are based on cognitive effective psychology [14,23,
24]. They mainly point to the essential characteristics of
icons that must be taken into consideration, for instance,
familiarity, concreteness, complexity, meaningfulness
and semantic distance. All stages in icon-based language
design are iterative [44,45], which means that if tests
expose usage drawbacks, we might decide to review the
libraries as well as to replicate the usability testing in the
next version. Our limitation is the fact that all visual vo-
cabularies in this paper were gathered from existing ones
and only used to represent concepts and ideas. At this
state we are not concerned with their appearance regard-
ing what they are representing. The design perspective
must be taken by the designers who are experts in the
area. Design relies enormously on cultural experience
and cognitive effectiveness.
4.3. Modeling Cultural Aspects
In combination with cultural geographic aspects, we have
based our cultural theoretical aspects on those refined in
a number of sources [30,31,34]. We focused on extract-
ing the aspects of culture that impact icon usage by con-
ducting a systematic literature review of related work
from the interdisciplinary fields of human-computer in-
teraction, cognitive psychology, and RE.
As shown in Figure 4, all of these cultural aspects are
rudimentarily defined in the web ontology language
(OWL) [28]. OWL gives an advantage in that it is an
extensible way to represent uniquely identified objects
that can be asserted across various users and agents [46].
The focal concept in cultural aspects is the Person class
together with its subclass of Female and Male. The Per-
son class further connects to the classes Education Level,
Religion and Computer Literacy. Data type properties of
the range integer record the five national dimensions. To
model the cultural influence of different nationals, the
ntology composes the object property, has Nationatlity. o
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Icons: Visual Representation to Enrich Requirements Engineering Work
Figure 4. A set of cultural components that govern icon-based interface adaptation.
The ontology also pertains to Country class, which con-
tains individuals of all continents and countries, but in
the beginning we have focused on only three countries
(Thailand, Finland and Australia). Likewise, the ontology
has been complemented with the class has Experience,
which provides us with information about a user’s RE
knowledge and skill.
No # Month class is inherited to has Expereince class
in order to provide a validated series of months. In this
paper we have not yet implemented this ontology. In-
stead we have drawn upon the theoretical framework to
derive a cultural conceptual process for executing the
first empirical evaluation by students in RE course at the
University of Jyväskylä, Finland. This framework can be
further improved and developed for icon-based informa-
tion adaptivity to specify different icon preferences that
correspond to cultures.
Figure 5 illustrates the convergence of three main ar-
tifacts—cultural user framework, RE artifacts and icon-
based information—to achieve an icon-based information
adaptivity process. First, it is necessary to build a user
framework on cultural particularities before the adapta-
tion can be achieved. The idea is that the register process
elicits the users’ background by taking into account
various influences that affect a user’s iconic preference,
such as their nationality and work experience. This in-
formation is passed on and stored in a cultural user
framework (CUF). A CUF acts as a knowledge base
about each user and inherited rules that trigger the adap-
tation of the icon-based interface.
When the user framework is used for the first time, the
user needs to provide information in a short question-
naire arranged by an application. This acquired informa-
tion helps to manage the icon-based information for the
user according to that user’s national preference. The
application receives the cultural dimensions for each
Figure 5. The process for icon-based adaptivity.
user’s nationality from the CUF. The application re-
trieves the RE features and the embedded iconic features
that corresponded to the user’s background information.
The icon-based interface is tailored to the user on the
basis of adaptation rules. For instance, if a user has a
high score in UAI, then an interface with very simple,
clear imagery and limited choice is provided. Since
icon-based information for RE that can adapt its appear-
ance differently among cultures is a novel approach, its
design can be partly applied from cultural adaptivity [47]
that involves the refinement of interface preferences.
Users can interact with this application (MediaWiki),
which is enabled to access the cultural user framework.
Users can also explicitly add or modify information in
their personal user registration. This, in turn, triggers
adequate adaptations that change the icon information of
the user interface.
5. Experiments
In this section we report on our summative evaluation of
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the ability of icon-based information for RE to ade-
quately adapt to varying requirements scenarios. The
evaluation was carried out to ensure that icons are effec-
tive and usable. Icon usability testing was conducted to
assess the degree to which the graphic chosen for the
icon represented the intended concept, so-called icon
intuitiveness [39]. The study focuses on participants with
a Finnish cultural background.
5.1. Participants
To evaluate the cognition of icon-based information for
requirements engineering by diverse participants, we
invited students attending a Requirements Engineering
course at the University of Jyväskylä to participate in the
study. Some of them were studying the subject for first
time and some already had experience in software engi-
neering. A total of 45 students took part in this study: 14
novices, (0 years of experience) and 31 experts (an aver-
age of 1.2 years of experience). Each student completed
three testing dimensions: individual icon interpretation,
multiple icon interpretation and compound icon con-
5.2. Test Apparatus
A web-based survey, a common instrument for gathering
information from participants, was set up for the empiri-
cal evaluation. The icons were presented to participants
on webpages. The website consisted of three primary
sections: background information, a form for personal
information and the icon test. Each test contained an ex-
planation that helped users to complete the task.
5.3. Procedure
Prior to the real execution of tasks, we briefly explained
to participants the purpose of the testing, the amount of
tasks they needed to complete and the step-by-step inter-
action. In addition, iconic symbols were chosen from a
variety of sources in order to ensure that they were rep-
resentative of the icons that are currently well-known in
the broad spectrum of RE artifacts. These included the
use of norms from standards such as ISO/IEC-11581 [42].
All the selected icons were abstract ones with predictable
meanings. However, we selected the icons that could be
simply interpreted and recognized without requiring prior
knowledge. For this study, our selection consisted of 14
icons, including 5 icons for priority, 5 icons for status,
and 4 icons for stakeholder type. Throughout the experi-
ment, participants were encouraged to interpret the icons
from the details they were given. The empirical survey
ended with a small questionnaire that gathered feedback
and comments on icon-based information in RE. Partici-
pants completed three series of tasks. For examples, see
Figure 6.
5.4. Preliminary Result
5.4.1. Individual Icon Interpretation
The requirements life cycle diagram, which consists of
five blanks (see Figure 6(a)), was delivered to all replies,
in conjunction with icons that resemble all five stages of
the requirements life cycle: Propose, Accept, Reject, Im-
plement and Verify. The participant selected the most
correlated icon and dropped it into every single blank
stage. The number of accurate selections per stage varied
from 52% to 94%.
5.4.2. Multiple Icon Interpretation
We categorized the iconic symbols into three require-
ments attributes: five status states, five priority types and
four stakeholder kinds. Each respondent mapped icons to
their corresponding meaning from two lists (see Figure
6(b)): one list of icons and another list of meanings. Ta-
ble 2 presents the outcomes for interpreting the icons and
their meaning for three distinct categories.
5.4.3. Compound Icon Construction
The icons were also used to represent requirements type
symbols and relationships imitating the concept of a
goal-oriented model (see Figure 6(c)). We offered four
types (business requirement, functional requirement,
non-functional requirements, and constraint), four rela-
tionship symbols (Refine, Require, AND and OR), and
five priority symbols (Very high, High, Fair, Low and
Very low). Each respondent constructed the iconic sen-
tence according to the statement. The correctness of
iconic constructs achieved a prediction accuracy of ap-
proximately 84%.
5.5. Role of Experience
The expected outcome of this study was that practitioners
would be able to recognize the iconic symbols represent-
ing RE artifacts, such as stakeholders, attributes and rela-
tionships. From the results, we observed that icons were
interpreted very well. The average correct prediction
accuracy was more than 50 percent. This finding informs
our direction to explore improvement possibilities of
icon-based information. The individual icon testing re-
vealed that the participants’ capability to answer the
status states required prior knowledge and experience of
the requirements life cycle and the interaction that takes
place during the process, from the beginning of propos-
ing to the end of verification. Training before taking part
in this test would probably assist the respondents in un-
derstanding the basic elements of RE. The multiple icons
testing showed that a participant’s interpretation de-
pended to some extent on their conventional knowledge.
For example, participants who have children might per-
ceive a baby carriage as high priority. There was also
Open Access JSEA
Icons: Visual Representation to Enrich Requirements Engineering Work
Open Access JSEA
Figure 6. The test task series, (a) type 1: individual icon mapping that exemplifies the requirements life cycle; (b) type 2: mul-
tiple icon meaning that typifies requirements attributes; and (c) type 3: iconic sentence construction that characterizes re-
quirements type s and relationships.
confusion over whether a train or a car is faster. The re-
sults for multiple icon testing also revealed that out of
interpretations for 14 icons, roughly 7.5% generated
misunderstanding. In the difficult recognition of goal-
graph relationship, compound icon construction gener-
ated positive feedback. Apparently, the use of dual-code
symbols with label captions enabled easy apprehension,
with the result being roughly 80% correct for the con-
We proposed the null hypothesis (H0) that the inter-
pretations for icons of practitioners in the same country
are similar and we also put forward the hypothesis (H1)
that the interpretations of icons by practitioners in the
same country can be different. These hypotheses were
informed by statistical results from binomial confidence
intervals. The binomial confidential interval is persuasive
because only two outcomes are possible in each identical
trial: success (correct) or failure (incorrect). As the out-
puts in Table 3 show, we reject the null hypothesis and
accept H1 because even though people in the same coun-
try tested icons, some misinterpretations remained. We
conclude, therefore, that iconic representations are de-
pendent on context and personal perspective. The diffi-
culties of interpretation might have arisen because the set
of icons chosen were not obviously representative exam-
ples of the intended functions.
We tested another hypothesis that no differences exist
in the interpretation of icons by novices and experienced
participants among the three test series. In Table 4, we
sed the Fisher Exact Probability Test to investigate the u
Icons: Visual Representation to Enrich Requirements Engineering Work 619
Table 2. Summary of the icon-tested results for N = 45 (in percent).
Priority types Life Cycle (status) states Stakeholder kinds
Icon & Meaning Correct prediction Icon & Meaning Correct prediction Icon & Meaning Correct prediction
Very Low
Very High
Table 3. Three categories of icons test for finnish country with confidential level 95%.
Type of Question Test Results
Individual Icon Interpretation The 95% confidence interval for the proportion of potential practitioners
who can place icons in the requirements life cycle stage well is 0.3650 to 0.6572.
Multiple Icon Interpretation The 95% confidence interval for the proportion of potential
practitioners who can interpret multi-icons well is 0.7242 to 0.9297.
Compound Icon Construction The 95% confidence interval for the proportion of potential practitioners
who can construct iconic sentence well is 0.7386 to 0.9503.
Table 4. The differences in the distribution of interpretation
between novices and spec ialists within Finnish culture.
Finnish culture P value between two groups
Individual Icon Interpretation 0.659
Multiple Icon Interpretation 0.720
Compound Icon Construction 0.749
distribution of two participant groups: novices and spe-
cialists. This test resulted in a contingency table with α =
0.05. We can reject the above hypothesis only if the P
value is less than the alpha value. With derived prob-
abilities (P value) for all tests greater than α = 0.05, it
would confirm the hypothesis. We conclude that work
experience is not associated (at the α = 0.05 level) with
how novices and specialists were able to comprehend the
meaning of icons.
6. Discussions and Recommendations for
We have mentioned the survey outcomes of three sample
sizes that belong to other nationalities. Not only can we
not use these small numbers as nationally representative,
but also all of them are affiliated with the experienced
group, so it is insufficient to analyze a two-sample test.
Table 5 shows the proportional correctness by percent-
age. Even though it was our intention to focus on par-
ticipants with a multicultural background, the low num-
ber (3) of other participants of other nationalities means
those are not significant enough to be systematically ex-
ploited for cultural summarization. We can only make
clear conclusions regarding users with Finnish national-
ity. This limitation motivates us to further evaluate these
issues with a significant number of participants from
other cultures.
However, the satisfactory result for priority types has
several implications for our approach. We cannot readily
presume that our proposed icons generalize to any person
in any country. This means that it is important to provide
users with clear-cut groups of requirements priorities.
Breaking down priority into three scales—high, medium,
and low—could advance straightforward recognition and
utilization [48]. First, high priority requirements are im-
portant and urgent. We advise the use of an aircraft icon
for high priority. Second, medium priority requirements
are important but not urgent. We recommend a car icon
for medium priority. Finally, low priority requirements
are neither important nor urgent. We encourage the use
Open Access JSEA
Icons: Visual Representation to Enrich Requirements Engineering Work
Table 5. The summary of correct inter pretation of 2 groups
for Finnish and 1 group for other cultures (3 replies).
Finnish culture Novices Experts Other cultures
Individual Icon Interpretation 57.15 48.39 66.7
Multiple Icon Interpretation 82.14 82.95 90.5
Compound Icon Construction 78.58 87.10 100
of a bicycle icon for this priority.
While the results of stakeholder kinds are encouraging,
they also expose the need for amendment. In practice, a
sticky figure is used in as a mnemonic device for the
ACTOR in the Use Case diagram. To increase the se-
mantic transparency and cognitive effectiveness of stake-
holder kinds in icon-based information, the detailed im-
age of people and circumstances can be employed as
portrayed in Figure 7.
The results of life cycle mapping indicate the confu-
sion if icons are separately presented. When participants
have all status icons to compare, it seems to be easy. But
if respondents need to match one distinct icon to one of
five life cycle stages without seeing the other icons, it
becomes more difficult for some of those icons. To avoid
this difficulty, icons with text description or textual en-
coding could expand and reinforce the meaning of icons
more effectively than using either on their own [14]. Text
can reinforce an icon’s meaning by offering an additional
hint to what they mean.
The comparison between novice and experienced users
is especially interesting, because the use of icon-based
information is not relied on the degree of experience.
With the statistics in Table 5 (Finnish Culture) as our
basis, we can justify that it is not always true that spe-
cialists are capable of understanding icons better than
amateurs. This finding enlightened our decision to inves-
tigate the obstacles encountered by users and we realized
that icon-based information is a new approach for both
novice and experienced users. Thus, they probably need
assistance in the form of training or education before
dealing with the approach in actual situations.
7. Conclusions
One of the strongest justifications for the use of symbols,
notably for icons, is that they are easy to use and under-
stand. One of the strongest claims made for RE is that it
is the most vital factor influencing the success of soft-
ware. Consequently, the importance of RE and advan-
tages of icons motivate the current research on adapting
icons for RE to bridge the communication barriers be-
tween business stakeholders and development teams. The
main objective of this work is to introduce icon-based
information as an alternative communication medium for
multifaceted stakeholders and thereby to enrich RE. The
Figure 7. The stakeholder icons.
competency of icon-based information could help de-
scribe and communicate requirements. Generally speak-
ing, icon-based information could be appropriate for ex-
pressing ideas in a wide range of uses, from business
desires and requirements descriptions to high-level ar-
chitecture design. Icon-based information could support
elicitation, analysis and traceability of requirements.
The results of our study suggest that icons can be used
to support RE. Icons are capable of heightening cognitive
effectiveness if they are properly designed and used. We
argue that abstract icons are possible to signify the con-
cept in RE. Our results do not show, however, whether
the designs of our icons are sufficient for all aspects of
RE. Further work is needed to establish the cultural user
framework (CUF). Moreover, we have to implement im-
provements according to the feedback obtained in the
first iteration and the second experimental iteration, which
will be evaluated by software companies.
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