User interfaces: hiding stuff should be a last resort

Many of the components we design for the web are made to save space. It’s interesting that we work so hard to save space on a medium where we have infinite space to work with.

Of course, I’m partly speaking in jest here. A heavy page can take a long time to load and cause assistive technology to respond slowly or even crash—so be careful with that.

But instead of doing the hard work to cut the content to its irreducible core, or simply showing it, we find innovative ways to cram more stuff into one screen, often at the cost of usability.

Links are hidden behind menus, hints behind tooltips, images within carousels and prose content behind accordions and unselected tabs. It’s just one big game of hide and seek show.

When we hide content, there’s a greater risk the user won’t see it. There’s a higher reliance on digital literacy and it’s generally more labour intensive for the user.

Worse still, sometimes we kill off essential content. Like supplanting labels with placeholders. Or making labels float which makes the already arduous task of form filling, well, more arduous.

There’s also a common assumption that splitting content across multiple pages is bad for users but most of the time it makes the experience better.

We hide stuff because we:

  • think that making users click to reveal content makes it ‘engaging’
  • are trying to win an award for the most minimalist design
  • are trying to find interesting ways to make a cluttered interface tidy and performant again
  • know it genuinely helps users

Only the last point is of any real value to the resulting experience.

In The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo says:

“Effective tidying involves only two essential actions: discarding and deciding where to store things. Of the two, discarding must come first.”

Let’s steal Marie’s quote and apply it to the realm of interaction design.

“Effective design involves two essential actions: discarding the superfluous and deciding where to put things. Of the two, discarding must come first.”

That means the first job is to push back against everyone’s natural inclination to add more shit onto a page. Because like Marie finds with her clients, people get attached to stuff they own. And it’s the same with adding stuff onto a screen.

When all that remains is essential, it’s easier to layout anyway—whether that involves hiding it first or not. And it’s a lot better for users.

Less, but better.