Supporting Common Pathways And Increasing Simplicity Through Disclosure

Progressive disclosure is a nice term don’t you think? Seems kinda academic when you first read it and then it rather becomes clear, progressively disclosing itself, metaphorically revealing the meaning within. I love it.

Anyway, in UE it refers to the way in which we hide features and functions that are not required, revealing them as the user’s journey progresses. Jakob uses the analogy of the print dialogue box. Going to ‘print’ reveals a stripped down dialogue; page size, orientation, copies. If the user wants more, they click ‘options’ or ‘advanced’ and are shown zoom options, colour settings, resolution, duplex etc. etc.

Stretching the analogy further, we could consider the tree menu system to work as a progressive disclosure. We could think about other examples all over the place on the web. How about the checkout process when you can click to change the delivery or invoice address (and so receive a detailed dialogue) or you can continue to dispatch if the settings are as you wish.

So progressive disclosure is a way of describing simplicity to support the most common pathways. At The Company we try and get masses of this stuff into our online applications. Dynamic layers that open up additional areas of transactional forms when users require a non-standard interactions. We understand that almost everyone is a special case, there are no ‘standard’ customers (and as such we don’t do personas for standard customers). We restrict interactions to the most common operators and offer a second or third set of options on request.

There is a school of argument of course that this prevents people from ever finding these ‘power tools’ but this just smacks of poor design. Make it obvious that there is more you can do and people will naturally explore. Particularly if the first set does not meet their goal. If these request points become decision points (E.g. “have I done all I needed to do”) within the task flow, then that will inform the solution you design. A solution which will ultimately be task focussed and with clear expectations of effect of the user’s action. A notable failure to perform correct user research into an implementation like this can be seen in Word's hidden menus (aside: how to disable hidden menus in Word etc.).

Progressive disclosure has another benefit: perceived hierarchy. By placing the most common activities on the initial part of the process, you are making an implicit statement about its importance; it enables them to prioritise their interaction. This prioritisation solves much of the problem above regarding the perception that the interaction only has a small set of features.

So, to get this right we have had to make some significant decisions: what is first-tier disclosure and what is second-tier? How many options should go into the first tier? (think of only a few … and then remove some), How can we make this initial feature set simple? How shall we reveal and direct users to the second tier?

Well we are solving these problems daily through some obvious UE techniques: Research – we know what our customers do on our site through metrics and qualitative usability testing. We use hierarchical design techniques, card sorting, site mapping and task-flow design to understand what takes priority. We also understand when a linear process might work better, where all features are provided by in a staged disclosure. The trick, as Jakob affirms, is to fit the design to purpose. Is there benefit in progressive or staged disclosure for a given task with a given user group.

Reading this far you will probably have a better idea than you did before.

Visual Guides for Tube Tourists

Two posts today, though I’m separating them so that their headers stand out as separate articles … gotta think SEO …

First is a bit of a cop out. A guy at The Company writes an intranet blog with a central tenet of inspiring great customer service. He’s a bit braver than I, often approaching people in restaurants, shops and the street to interrogate them when they’ve been part of a great customer experience or solution to one of life’s problems. His eyes are always open and recently he took a trip on the London Underground (a subject I’ve mentioned in the past in relation to navigation analogies). I’ll let him take up the story (used by permission):

“…On the tube and got off at Westminster. Now I was off to meet a Customer Experience 'guru' and I had the address but as I was coming up the escalator I was thinking, 'I wonder what exit to take?'. Now, most tube stations with multiple exits have text based signs pointing to each exit. I was surprised and delighted to see the [picture left]:

You see, many tourists won't be able to read the text signs and even Brits like me can often navigate far better through pictures of “what I want to see when I surface” (when I don't know street names).

So, I asked one of the staff, 'Who thought of that, it's bloody brilliant'. And the answer, 'we had a quick team pow wow and the boss asked for ideas to make things better for customers, Trevor came up with that, was given a digital camera and went out on his lunch and took the pictures'. He then said, 'and the best thing is customers seem to like it, and us staff don't lose anywhere near as much time trying to explain directions to people who are a bit confused'. I am not embarrassed to say that I gave him a hug. He looked somewhat alarmed. I asked for Trevor but it wasn't his shift so I wrote a note of thanks and congratulations (ironically on a complaint form as it was all that could be found).

So, anyhow, be a 'Trevor' today. Look at things from your customers eyes - have a pow wow and just do it!”

Cool huh? Ironically the London Tube map was actually designed by Harry Beck in the expectation that users didn’t need it to accurately reflect geography and scale as being under ground meant there were no landmark reference points. Many stations, along with highlighting the colour and having a unique design scheme (e.g. tiling at Tottenham Court Road) feature imagery of nearby attractions in their decoration however it is when exiting the tube that features such as photographs of what’s available at each exit are crucial.

But even more, the point of this piece is to illustrate how great ideas only take a little prompting and really loads of people ‘think customer’ regularly. This idea might have arisen with a staff suggestion box scheme but I reckon it probably would not. Trevor wouldn’t have got round to it, he’d have had second thoughts – thinking it was frivolous. However, a quick pow-wow and boom! Idea’s out there, acted upon and getting men in suits all excited at the same time as expediting the passage of tourists around the World’s greatest capital.

Epilogue: Can anyone else think of any Tube stops that feature imagery of tourist attractions that are in close proximity to the station. For example, somewhere in the tile mosaic, wall designs or in the exit/ticket hall? The
most obvious ones are Bank, St. Pauls (before rennovation), Baker St. and, to some extent, Victoria...