Progressive Reduction and Progressive Disclosure

Two ways to show users less but give them more

Progressive disclosure and progressive reduction are two different techniques that aim for the same outcome; an improved user experience.

A common way to improve the usability of a website is to remove elements from it. The idea being that less content and options often equals a smaller cognitive load for the end user. Removing unnecessary content and options from the site is not always an option though, some sites cannot be simplified in this way, some sites need to offer a lot of options to users.

If you can’t remove options how about hiding them? Do you need to show everything to your users as soon as they arrive on your site? Dropdown menus offer a very basic way of hiding some options from users but more sophisticated methods are needed for some websites and apps.

Progressive Disclosure

As the name suggests progressive disclosure means showing users more as they progress through a process. A simple of example of this can be seen on the form below:

The user is first presented with one action with four options. After answering this question only then are they shown additional options based on their selection. By disclosing the information this way the site makes it easy to focus on one set of options at a time.

Another example is shown on this iPad app below. The user is initially shown three simple yes/no options and it’s only if they select the last of the options, to set a reminder, that they are presented with a further set of choices to set up a time and date for the reminders.

This technique is often used in computer games, where during the first couple of levels you might only have a simple set of moves/techniques/weapons etc. but as the game progresses more and more options become available. This means that it’s easy to get started playing the game but as you progress, and learn the controls, more options are introduced to make playing the game more enjoyable. If the game showed the user all available options on level 1 then they would confuse them. If they only offered the user basic options through the whole game then they would bore them. Disclosing more options at the rate that the user learns the available ones means they will have an improved user experience.

Progressive Reduction

So is progressive reduction just the opposite to progressive disclosure? Well, no, not quite. Progressive reduction applies when you show users instructions to begin with, but then remove them as they learn. The example below shows how this might work for an icon:

As we can see, the icon starts off with a text label, then changes to a big square with a tick in, before finally being replaced with a smaller tick in the corner. The first button is required by new users who would otherwise have no idea what clicking the button did, but as they become familiar with the outcome of clicking it the text description is no longer needed. This technique is also known as ‘experience delay’.

Where possible you should design in a way that needs no onscreen instructions. Your designs should make the options for your user obvious without the need for pages of details. The term ‘click here’ for example should not be used for links as the link should appear to be clickable without any instruction. However, there are times when you may need to use instructions, but you may not need to display these instructions to experienced visitors.

Have you been to a Harvester before?

On arriving at glorified pub-chain Harvester customers are normally asked “have you ever been to a harvester before?” This means that returning diners are able to skip the complicated instructions and get straight down to helping themselves to the dubious selection available at the ‘salad’ bar. Another real world example could be your local barman giving you a pint of ‘the usual’ in the knowledge that you don’t need to be told the full options of beverages available every time you pop in for a drink.

Progressive disclosure and progressive reduction are best used when based on individual user behaviour. People learn at different rates and the rate of reduction and disclosure should be based on those learning curves. A design that adapts to the user will always be more usable than a ‘one size fits all’ approach.


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