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Tufte & Nielsen believe that screen real estate is one of the most important asset for a (UX) designer. Utilize available screen space - Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox: May 9, 2011 & The Visual Display of Quantitative Information - Edward Tufte: May 2001.

Nielsen's review of Windows 8 had one specific point, 'Low Information Density' amongst others, saying that this leads to unnecessary scrolling on the users part and is bad UX.

On the other hand, you have the "Less is More" campaigners. Here's an UX booth article from Oct 2010, Less is More: Simplifying your User Experience. It has it's origin in the Arts and architecture with the minimalism movement. You see many websites being designed along these principles. Windows 8 is also pushing in this direction. The recent Facebook home also seems to be a good candidate for this design.

My question is: Is there any scenario where the "less is more" style holds true? If yes, is there any threshold value of sorts till which the minimalist concepts holds true (a couple page website vs. ecommerce website)?

Or, are these concepts unrelated?

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I'm confused as to which two concepts you are referring to. Simplifying a UX vs complicating one? –  DA01 Apr 10 '13 at 1:12
@DA01 It is not about simplifying vs complicating an UX. My question is if people feel more attracted towards one of the two design thinkings (less is more/use every pixel wisely). There are articles/industry leaders supporting both sides (while opposing the other) and I want to see what other people here think. –  rk. Apr 10 '13 at 2:50
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6 Answers

One of my favorite concepts from design is: Great design isn't when you run out of things to add, it's when you run out of things to take away.

The concept of a minimalist approach in UX, from personal experience and various sources, is about removing those elements which get in the way of the user's primary goal. Take most modern browsers, which have been tooled down to, pretty much, a combination address/search field, and the back and forward buttons. There is also the notion of, in the case of users wanting to get information quickly, whitespace aiding in the separation/chunking of information - resulting in faster retrieval of information. This is seen with many mobile apps which present a list of a lot of information whereby cells in the list are given more padding/margin above and below the discrete pieces of information. Lastly, there is the notion of analysis paralysis (or the paradox of choice) whereby an experience has too many (much) choices (information) at which point the value is lost - imagine staring at a database table filled with a bunch of rows (or a spreadsheet for that matter). You can also look at the formatting buttons for the Stack comment form - headers aren't there, underline, strikethrough, etc. - not there. But there is enough to allow the non-Markdown savvy folks to format a comment.

The "maximalist" approach also has its place, but it's very easy to inundate and get in the way of a user's ability to get done what they came to get done quickly/easily without spending time building muscle memory. This is one of the issues I have with the MS Ribbon, for example, all the buttons are stacked next to one another with little space/grouping - and, unless I used it regularly, takes forever to navigate and write and format a document.

To conclude, minimalism, taken too far, gets in the way of users getting what they came to do done - imagine a mobile app where every table cell takes an entire screen. "Maximalism", taken too far, gets in the way of users getting what they came to do done - imagine a mobile app where every table cell has no whitespace or visual indication separating each cell from the next/previous. The target is the middle path, but should be based on the primary desire/purpose of the users.



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Thanks for bringing the minimal design concept. I had forgotten about that when I wrote the question :) And since you brought up the topic of MS Ribbon, in the nielsen review of windows 8, he reminisces the introduction of Ribbon menu in Windows 7 (Office). So basically, his view is sort of opposite of yours. Anyways, I get your view on the topic, would you like to comment on the views of the "thought leaders"? –  rk. Apr 9 '13 at 23:50
It's been a very long time since I read Tufte's book; so, I feel uncomfortable commenting on that. I've listened to a lot of Apple's WWDC presentations on UX for iOS and Mac OS X, which are under NDA (I believe they still are anyway). As to the Nielsen comment on low information density - I defer to my answer - we should find the balance between low (non-existent) information density and inundating users with so much information they can't find what they're looking for. Imagine walking into a library. What do users usually do first? Find a librarian; or other "map" of the landscape. –  Josh Bruce Apr 10 '13 at 11:46
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Ok, so I am going to disagree and agree with both approaches.

Personally I believe that Tufte's famous ink usage idea is idiocy from the start. This philosophy is one without thresholds or balance. It literally values information density to the point where writing your reports on a grain of rice would be considered ideal. Information density is bad ux if it overwhelms the user or detracts from understanding.

The opposite is also true with minimalism, by systematically removing everything conceivably unnecessary from view, the designer infantilizes the user. While this may appear to be a 'cleaner' and 'simpler' approach it does not bear out in the long term. Users may feel better and more at home initially (or not), but over time it becomes clear how much extra work it is to get anything complex done when each view is a refined minimal nugget of control and information. In other words minimalism is the root cause of many interfaces getting 'in the way' of tasks rather than aiding them.

The real value judgement should exist outside of design itself. The goal should not be to be minimalistic or maximalistic, dense or sparse, but to provide to be readable, understandable and efficient. If the most understandable and efficient way to present your data and controls does not take full advantage of screen space, then quickly consider if taking advantage of that space adds value. If not, the right answer is to allow that screen space to go unused.

If you find that users are overwhelmed by the density of the page, consider removing less used components, or adding more padding and margins; if not there is no reason to do so, and removing components will harm the users ability to be agile.

Every aspect of the design no matter how small should have substantive meaning, controls and information should be placed logically and intuitively, useless controls and information should not exist, just as all useful controls and information necessarily should exist. The design should not hurt ones eyes, or be overly flashy, as users may be using it for extended periods of time. The design must be usable, readable and understandable.

These are much more noble and amiable goals than minimalism or density; and promote a healthy balance between the min-max dichotomy. Targeting one or the other for philosophy's sake is bad philosophy, and leads to bad UX. Do whats best of the user and let the 'isms take care of themselves.

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Both viewpoints are really saying the same thing: that every bit of information on a page should convey some useful information. Whether it be Tufte's idea of ink density or the redesign of major websites to contain only a few large buttons, both are intent upon stripping the design down to the barest frame necessary to serve their purpose.

Additional information distracts from the purpose.

As an example of how a seemingly simple graphic display aimed at a web audience with little time still works to convey a great deal of information in a small space, consider the data density of Google's weather results. If you're just glancing at it for the current weather, it has that information displayed prominently, but if you wish to look further, you'll find that it shows [for the upcoming week] (1) high temperature and (2) low temperature and [for the next 24 hours] (3) the temperature, (4) the rapidity of temperature change [slope], (4) likeliness of precipitation, (5) probable type of precipitation (6) wind speed, (7) wind direction, placing all of this information on screen simultaneously to allow for rapid comparisons....something Tufte extolls throughout his works. The sunny graphics aren't chartjunk; they have a intuitive mapping to relative cloud-cover and precipitation type; if you look at the "Visual Confections" section of Tufte's book Visual Explanations or at the "Words, Numbers, Images" section of his book Beautiful Evidence I think you'll find he would approve.

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I find, both are extremes (of the same thing?). Tufte would never allow his design to be even near that of windows 8 or facebook home, since almost the entire view is taken up by a single image (?) and that too is not very informative (of the entire application). –  rk. Apr 9 '13 at 22:01
@rk. They have different purposes. Tufte's is to convey information. The home pages' is to provide a gateway to other places. Both support minimalism to transfer as much useful knowledge as possible. (Excess information detracts from the purpose in both cases.) –  3nafish Apr 9 '13 at 22:04
Tufte was a (maniac) when it came to information density. Granted, his work was with info vis, but if you look at the weather app or other such apps on windows 8, I see no way I can imagine him designing it. –  rk. Apr 9 '13 at 22:07
@rk. Tufte was designing for a different audience, an audience he expected to have time to absorb in-depth information shown in multiple ways and to draw comparisons between different parts of the data. A web audience is more hurried, but many of the same principles hold true. I've edited my question to respond to your suggestion that Tufte wouldn't like the weather app. –  3nafish Apr 10 '13 at 0:34
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Both Nielsen and less is more are saying the same thing. And it's neither minimalism nor maximalism, but perhaps maximin: maximizing the utility from minimal space.

The less is more is about prioritizing the information/functionality that is most needed by the user up front and presenting the less used information/functionality in a less obtrusive way than the main information/functionality. "Less is more" is primarily about prioritization, not about removing information/features (though that can happen as well).

For example:

enter image description here

it's a design/development company, so the primary purpose of the website is to "sell" the company to potential clients. In the website, you see up front that the most important message the website is trying to convey is that they are a company that creates applications with the following technology; the huge font and large amount of white space is used to attract attention to the primary message, the most important message they want to convey, everything else can wait. Contrast that with:

enter image description here

which is a personal portfolio site, the purpose of the site is to showcase his work. So the most important content is of course, a selection of works. Another example:

enter image description here

it's a shop, whose primary purpose is to sell product; so the most important content is the product images, and product name, and price.

However, for news apps like the LA Times Metro UI, and Bing Finance Metro, for example:

enter image description here

the primary purpose of the home page for a newsreader is to help user scan for interesting news to read; however, incorrectly following less is more, both apps had removed their most important content: the news themselves. The LA Times app is guilty for cutting off the headline and the snippet way too short to be useful, users would have no idea what the news is about before tapping on it. While the Bing Finance delivers only a single news in the home page, essentially naking it useless for scanning news; while the stock market quotes is nice, though it contains too little information for casual observers of stock market to know what the short/medium term changes/trends are (a simplified 12/24-hour graph would be more useful to convey the stock trends).

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From a task performance perspective information should be there when the user needs it.

Not before as it makes finding the info the user needs harder.

Not after as it interrupts the task to find the required information.

So information density is a function of the task information requirements.

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There's some confusion in assuming that Tufte is for complexity. He's for information fidelity, not necessarily density. He's a huge proponent of 'less is more' as well, in that he is very much known for rallying against 'chart junk' -- aka all the design details that often get in the way of the actual data (zebra striping, fat table borders, unnecessary color or gradients, etc).

His ultimate goal is to communicate information effectively and part of that is making sure there is a high enough resolution to communicate the details. It's not so much about the quantity of data, but the fidelity the data one has is being shown.

So, I'd actually argue that--at least from the 'less is more' mantra--Tufte and Nielsen aren't all that far apart.

What Nielsen is getting at, is taking less is more too far, in that one has not only removed the unnecessary decoration, but is perhaps at the point where they are now removing needed information.

In the end, good design isn't so much "less is more" but "remove the unnecessary". That's not quite as catchy, though.

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