How Can You Give Them Everything Without Overwhelming Them (Progressive Disclosure)?

When it comes to a new product being introduced in the market, we see probing behaviour from the users who want to do a lot but don’t want to spend time learning how to do it. So then how do we design while we keep all the data and options available to the user and at the same time ensure that we do not overwhelm the user?

The answer is Progressive disclosure. Usability experts define progressive disclosure as a technique that “defers advanced or rarely used features to a secondary screen, making applications easier to learn and less error-prone.” Progressive disclosure follows the typical notion of moving from “abstract to specific,” including the sequencing of user behaviours or interactions. In other words, progressive disclosure is not just about displaying information from abstract to specific. At the practical level, encouraging the user to move from completing simple actions or tasks to executing more complex ones is what lies at the heart of the philosophy. Disclosing more complex, secondary features only if a user asks for them provides a two-tiered environment where most users can proceed with their tasks effectively and efficiently. This allows casual users to proceed without frustration while keeping advanced users satisfied with higher-end functionality.

What progressive disclosure means for you

Progressive disclosure is a way to manage the vast amount of information you have available. If you try to present all possible choices to users at once, it will be difficult for them to choose what is important and what isn’t. This leads to information overload and increases the chance that they won’t do anything.

A good example of progressive disclosure at work would be your ATM – the sequence you see in the UI is all about progressive disclosure. The first screen shows only the most important options, in the order, a user is most likely to need them. Notice that the first three options are the most commonly used: 

  1. Withdrawal
  2. Deposit
  3. Balance inquiry

And while there are a number of other, less-commonly used options, they’re all tucked away behind the “Additional Options” button.

If I select Balance Inquiry, focus narrows; the only information I see onscreen is related to my request. All other options are hidden until I choose either continue or cancel.

How to choose what’s most important

When you’re thinking about what should be displayed by default, you want to consider several questions. The answers should help you decide what should be displayed by default and what can be progressively disclosed over time.

What is the user’s primary goal at the current moment?

  • Here, it’s not just about the overall goal (such as withdrawing money), but the goal on a given screen (such as check balance).
  • Is there any information that users would need to know some of the time, but not always?
    • Are there any advanced options that fit certain scenarios, but aren’t likely to be used by everyone?
  • If all of the information were displayed and users could choose to hide some of it, what would many of them choose?
    • User testing could come in handy to determine what people find unnecessary.
  • Is any of the information an additional explanation of something already present?
    • If something is present, it’s a good candidate for an interaction that can show more details.

When you’ve come up with answers to such questions, choose only the important information and display it clearly. Then organise everything else so that users can clearly see how to access it if they want.

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