So far we have spent a lot of time discussing things that should be added to a piece of technology to make it easier to use. System status indicators for heuristic #1. More delete confirmations to satisfy heuristic #5. Templates to satisfy experienced system users in accordance with heuristic #7. This is all great, but how much is too much?
Aesthetic and Minimalist Design
Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.
– Dr. Jakob Nielsen, 10 Heuristics for User Interface Design
It is important to acknowledge the reality that more information does not necessarily lead to better outcomes or better decisions. Too much information on a screen not only makes the screen look busy and confusing, but it has a law of diminishing returns aspect to it as well: The more you put out there, the less attention people pay to it, and the less impact each piece of information will have. A user’s attention span is not infinite; it’s a finite resource that may change from day to day or minute to minute.
As someone coming from an education background, this is the heuristic principle that I struggle with the most. I want people to understand not only what is happening, but why. There is a time and a place for that deep dive into a particular issue, but it shouldn’t be your default. For example, when I am assisting with a software demo, I have to reign myself in to present only the birds-eye view, going deeper only if the customers seem interested. After all, they signed up for a demo, and that’s all of the attention they have allocated. If I am providing a full training, that’s when we get into the nuts and bolts.
It is important to keep in mind the second sentence within the heuristic: every extra piece of information competes with the information already on the screen, resulting in reduced visibility for both pieces of information. You will often see this remedied by putting the extra information into a pop-up box in front of the screen, or fading out the normal screen to visually draw focus to the information you want the users to focus on. This is fine to do, so long as it’s done sparingly.
One area I think this heuristic should drive is field titles. I have seen more than my fair share of field titles that were obviously named by someone with a programming background; field titles long enough to be an entire sentence full of words that are incomprehensible to people without a technology background. If we keep in mind that every piece of information on the screen competes with all of the other information on the screen, it makes more sense to shorten the titles so they contain only the basic information that is needed. Calling a field a Hemoglobin A1C Computational Value is technically correct: the field should contain the computed value for Hemoglobin A1C. But calling it Hemoglobin A1C is much better because users know what that means and what type of value the field is looking for. The words Computational Value do not add anything…in fact they take away attention from the entire field title and increase the odds users may enter something incorrectly because they didn’t bother to read the entire title.
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Your software or webpage should keep this in mind as well.