User interfaces: hiding content should be a last resort

A disproportionate amount of time is spent designing complex interactions that hide content at the cost of usability.

Links are hidden within menus; hints behind tooltips; images in carousels; all sorts inside accordions and tabs; and labels inside inputs.

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

There’s also a widespread assumption that splitting content across pages is bad even when it mostly improves the experience.

In my experience, content is hidden because:

  1. people mistake ‘clicking’ for ‘engaging’
  2. people are trying to win an award for minimalism
  3. people are trying to find ways to declutter an interface
  4. people are trying to genuinely improve the experience

Only the last point is of value to users.

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.”

I’ll rewrite her quote and apply it to design.

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

This means we have to push back against everyone’s natural inclination to add more stuff onto a page.

And instead, do the hard work to cut content to its irreducible core and then just show it.

When all that remains is essential, there’s less to read and less of a need to resort to patterns that hide content.

Both of which improves the experience for users.