There’s a problem with the latest emoji additions, and it’s only going to get worse 😥

With over 3,178 emojis and 168 new ones just added in the latest release, of the ubiquitous Unicode pictogram collection – there is a major problem looming, categorisation.

 Ever tried finding an emoji these days, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. Especially if you’re trying to find that elusive emoji you’re pretty certain exists, but not sure where it resides. If you’ve tried the hunt when you’re attempting to insert it into a quick-fire message exchange – I’m guessing you’ve usually either given up or ended up feeling frustrated 😡 as the moment in the conversation passed…

The full gamut of emojis on iOS in Unicode Emoji v12.1
The full gamut of emojis on iOS in Unicode Emoji v12.1

Don’t get me wrong I like emojis and making them more inclusive to include accessibility contexts and variant genders and skin tones allows people across the globe make emojis their own and add a rich emotional tone and a shorthand for playfulness to their conversations.

With a pictogram set now running into the thousands, being accessed primarily on small screens, this is a problem that really needs to be addressed. Let’s get a layout of the land,

Emojis are currently categorised into 8 groups,

  • Smileys & people
  • Animals & nature
  • Food & drink
  • Activity
  • Travel & places
  • Objects (aka dumping ground for miscellaneous)
  • Symbols
  • Flags

Hold on you say, many of those 3,178 must be permutations of skin-tone, and hair colour variants which bring the distinct number down, but we’re still talking about over 2,000+ distinct emojis – so the problem still stands. You can find the full detailed breakdown on the unicode counts page (v12.1).

230 new emojis were added in 2019 and 161 in 2018, the current total runs at 3,178 emojis, but there are still only 8 categories.

The current categorisation (more specifically the information architecture) is no longer that useful, and hasn’t been for some time.

These categories are frankly huge, and contain a larger number of increasingly nuanced and detailed emojis – on a mobile device I find myself continually side scrolling to locate an emojis, and can get easily lost in the process.

Many of the emojis also don’t sit quite comfortably in their categories, for example the umbrella and suitcase reside in ‘Smileys & people’ but one could easily argue that they would be more suited in ‘Objects’ or the suitcase in ‘Travel & places’. The flags sub-section has it’s own problems, unless you already know the flag for the country it’s difficult to verify if you have the selected the correct flag if you’re unsure.

The only real solutions are to recategorise, or sub-divide the categories into more meaningful groups, and provide mechanisms to quickly and visually locate them or have the app even suggest them; iOS has an emoji suggest mode in their messages app – but we need a more universal solution.

The other issue to contend with is the classic inefficient QWERTY keyboard problem – people have learnt and become familiar with a sub-standard interface and any radical change will cause frustration to them and the usual backlash. The only saving grace is that the continued introduction of more emojis makes this a moving target and change is more likely to be welcomed as even expert users will only tolerate so much.

Browsing and selection mechanisms

The mechanism for selecting emoji variants (skin tone, hair colour), by hiding them under a singular representative emojis is very useful, and it works well. Apple also recently took this one step further in iOS 13.2 by using a variant on this for multi person emojis.

Variant multi-person emoji selector on iOS
Variant multi-person emoji selector on iOS

This allows for 26 permutations to reside under a single emoji. Pretty slick. Although I dread to think about the interface for a 4 person emoji. 😭

Let’s take the central conceit of gradual change – one starting point could be to introduce better visual grouping cues, whilst retaining the Unicode order – to help users quickly locate the emoji of choice.

A few avenues to investigate could be to include using colour backgrounds as an interesting semantic way to sub-group emotional emojis, more arbitrary groupings could just be as a simple as having a key line around them or introducing wider spacings to delineate sub-groups. A quick recap of Gestalt principles could be what OS design teams might need to really consider.

Suggestions for visually grouping emojis.
Suggestions for visually grouping emojis.

In essence discoverability, and findabilty is low using the current information architecture and mechanisms we have in place for using emojis efficiently, with plenty of scope for improvement.

So what’s the solution? To be honest, I don’t have one 🤯 – but the more emojis that get added the more unusable the categorisation and it’s mechanisms will continue to become.