Interface Information Density: Less Isn’t Always More

An Article By Ayana Campbell Smith // 9.2.2019

We live in a data-rich world where the need to quickly analyze, interpret, and transform data is at an all-time high. Yet despite this need and a concurrent increase in screen real estate over the years, trends in interface design web applications have shifted toward a minimal aesthetic.

Meanwhile, information density, the amount of readable information presented in a single screen view, is at an all-time low these days. Though visually appealing, this pared back approach to interface design has its disadvantages. When careful consideration isn’t given to users and the tasks they need to accomplish, minimalistic interfaces can quickly become a hindrance to the very problems they were created to solve.

With careful investigation, you just might be surprised to find that for some users, less isn’t always more.

Source: Left | Right

When Simplicity Goes a Bit Too Far in Interface Design

Ask any designer what their biggest job role is and you’re bound to hear some form of “I solve problems.” From architects to print designers and the many disciplines sprinkled in between, problem solving is a mainstay of nearly every creative profession. Interface designers are no different. Most often this ability is demonstrated by crafting software that brings order to complex processes. By coming in with a fresh perspective, interface designers are able to sort through the clutter of complicated workflows and draw forth new solutions that are smart, simple, and easy to use.

Unfortunately, if left unchecked, this simplification process has a sneaky way of influencing design decisions, sometimes at the expense of those that will eventually use the application interfaces most. Trendy minimalism is alluring, but functionality should always take precedence with aesthetics following closely after. Never the other way around.

The level of information density within an interface should be appropriate to the intended audience. This can only be determined by figuring out who this is and what their needs are.

Introducing the Power User

Power users are a special breed. By definition, they are users of a computer system or program whose skills and expertise are more advanced than most other users. Think of a skilled pilot in a cockpit or a seasoned accountant using enterprise-level reporting software. Most often, they are the driving force behind a product’s success because of the frequency with which they interact with it. Their unique position means their needs differ greatly from those of new or occasional users. Special consideration should be taken when designing for this user type.

Power users know just where to go and what to do within interfaces to get things done. They aren’t intimidated by complexity and often benefit from interfaces where information density is high. Being exposed to a wider breadth of content and features means they are better able to adapt interfaces to meet the specific needs of their unique workflows. A low information density would encroach upon this ability.

Finding Balance Between Power Users and New Users for Your Interface

New users, by contrast to power users, require a certain level of hand holding to successfully complete tasks and may become easily overwhelmed by high-information density. Ideally, an interface should have enough complexity to get work done efficiently while simultaneously ensuring that users aren’t overwhelmed. Even in the hands of the most capable user, an interface with poorly executed information density can lead to failure.

Higher cognitive loads occur when information density is too high. As a result, users are prone to analysis paralysis, the phenomenon in which an abundance of choice results in indecision. By contrast, users may become frustrated by a lack of control and options for completing tasks if information density is too low. In both scenarios, productivity suffers while the likelihood of users abandoning the product increases.

Finding the correct balance of information density to satisfy all user types can be tough as a number of factors must be considered:

  • Is the app internal or customer facing?
  • What tasks are users looking to accomplish?
  • How much time will they spend interacting with the interface and how often?

These types of questions and many others can only be answered when time is spent becoming intimately acquainted with users. By defining their goals and the tasks and information required to ensure said goals are realized, more informed decisions about appropriate information density levels can be made.

Considerations and Requirements for Well-Balanced Information Density

Below are five key factors to be considered to strike the perfect balance of information density within an interface. All work together to provide an optimal user experience and satisfy the differing needs of power users and new users alike.

Usability

An interface’s usability plays a major role in its success or failure. The best interfaces are intuitive and easily navigable with actions that are clearly evident. Following commonly used design patterns such as those spelled out in Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines or Google’s Material Design is a great first step toward a usable interface.

Legibility/Scannability

Written words make up 95% of the information on the web. With this fact in mind, it’s safe to say that typography plays an important role in interface design. Poor legibility impedes user progress while low scannability can lead to overwhelming cognitive loads and decreased productivity. Adhering to good typography practices in regard to layout, hierarchy, sizing, and more ensures the information being presented is easily consumable by all user types.

Source

Flexibility

Power users, more than any other user type, benefit from the ability to tailor interfaces to fit their unique needs. Fully configurable layouts, customizable font sizing, and smart filtering are all excellent ways to provide users with increased flexibility within an interface.

Gmail, for example, offers great flexibility for users looking to customize their email experience. In addition to various filtering, sorting, and search features, they’ve included three options for adjusting display density within inboxes. 

Intelligence

The beauty of software is its ability to grow more intelligent over time. Power users benefit from systems that know what information is most useful and where and how it should be displayed at any given moment.

This type of intelligent design is perfectly illustrated by Pinterest’s interface. The homepage presents users with an array of content they might be interested in that seamlessly updates with more related content as users scroll and interact. The action of saving pins is made sweeter by the inclusion of suggested boards based on previous interactions with the platform. Two clicks or less and it’s done. At every touchpoint, Pinterest succeeds at streamlining the experience by learning users’ behaviors and adapting to meet their needs.

Good Onboarding

When done correctly, onboarding flows transform new users into power users by increasing complexity in stages over time. Similar to video games, users should demonstrate mastery of basic skills before being given the ability to perform new, more complex tasks.

Source

Quickbook’s approach to onboarding succeeds by exposing users to what features are available from the start. Users are given the freedom to explore as their skillset allows. For those that are new to the platform, a clear path to follow is given as they become familiar with the product. This method of progressive mastery sets a strong foundation for getting work done and ensures that they aren’t overwhelmed from the outset. On the flip side, power users are still free to bypass simpler flows and dive directly into more complex tasks if they wish. In both scenarios, the needs of both user types are equally satisfied.

Design trends come and go, but it is important to remember that when it comes to information density within interfaces, sometimes more is more. Through thoughtful consideration for your different user types and their unique needs, decisions about appropriate levels of information density can be made.