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The engineers I have worked with at various companies seem to be of one mind, in that they believe it's most useful to their clients if every field available in a given dataset is displayed in a datagrid. This can result in datagrids with gigantic widths, and lead to column-width issues, which I as a designer am assigned to fix. Looking at the glut of data presented in these tables, which somethimes even need to scroll offscreen, I cannot see how presenting this much information at once in such a manner can possibly be useful. Furthermore, it ties many of our tables to a fullscreen width, as the amounts of data cannot possibly be displayed in a useful manner in anything less. My question is this: how much data is too much to display, before the user feels overwhelmed, overloaded, and disinterested?

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This question is entirely based on your audience. There are multiple techniques to help with your situation, but testing it with a couple of users may be a good start. Simple questions such as, "Can you find [this] information on the table" will indicate how difficult it is in locating content. This may in turn convince some of your co-workers that displaying everything at once is not the best choice. –  Chris N. Aug 23 '13 at 19:22
    
At the point that I have read so long that my bag of chips is empty, my chair has sunk in, my mind is wandering, my hands are tapping and I think I needed to go pee an hour ago! –  SpYk3HH Aug 23 '13 at 20:41
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As an engineer interested in UX I find your starting sentence prejudicial. If you want for engineers that you have to work with to get a grasp on UX, I'd say that an inclusive/compassionate approach works better than a confrontative one. ;-) –  Ricardo Sánchez-Sáez Aug 24 '13 at 23:41
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The reason why dashboards are becoming more popular is partially due to the fact that data tables for complex information is not a very good way to help people make decisions. I would say that if you can't look at a data table and work out what you want to do and how it should be done, then the amount of data presented is too much. –  Michael Lai Sep 6 '13 at 0:57

3 Answers 3

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The amount of data (both in terms of the types of data that are presented, and the amount of information presented for each type of data) presented in a table becomes too much when your users are unable to complete their goals, or are able to complete their goals with a lot of difficulty and overhead. Which is to say, the amount of data that is presented is too much when your users tell you (directly or indirectly) whether it's too much.

You can quickly gather some information about whether you're presenting too much data by either interviewing current users about what they do with your product and how they go about doing it (if you have any; it's unclear whether this is a new product (or new feature in an existing product), or by conducting a usability study against your most important use cases with your current or potential users to see if they are able to accomplish their goals.

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Much appreciated. Our clients have requested that all the data be present in many of these cases; of course I'm all for giving the clients what they ask for, but don't see how creating a garganuantuan table that doesn't fit onscreen is actually usable, and have suspicions they're asking for these things because they're used to working in Excel workbooks and want an interface that reminds them of this. Also, in many cases, these tables include a description-type paragraph in one or more fields that presents difficulties- do I let them stretch out the table cell, truncate the data, or other? –  Eddie Prislac Aug 23 '13 at 20:27
    
I've been leaning towards cardview listings for tables with these long data-types (this way, the longer fields can be placed on the bottom of smaller fields arranged side-by-side), if we can truncate a field that long without issue, what's the point of including it at all? –  Eddie Prislac Aug 23 '13 at 20:31
    
@EddiePrislac, and don't forget to invite a member of engineering team to the usability test. –  Alexey Kolchenko Aug 24 '13 at 10:56
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I don't think that you should give either users or clients everything that they explicitly ask for. A request from a user, or a client, is based on their assumptions and biases. To create the best UX, you need to understand the underlying assumptions and biases. Most importantly, you have to understand the need that the request is based upon. The best way to meet the need might not be the way that is articulated by the user (or by the client). This isn't to say that you should ignore the user or the client, but to use their request to inform your design. –  nadyne Aug 26 '13 at 18:43
    
I find the hardest part of UX design is actually figuring out what the users need vs what they ask for. The tendency is to get asked to do things that are terrible UX wise because they think in terms they already understand i.e. "I want Excel" even if the data isn't a good fit. –  craigb Sep 16 '13 at 20:41

There are two aspects to this question:

  1. Amount of data - this really depends on your audiance. For example if you are working with financial planners they would be comfortable dealing with more data in the same spreadsheet. Other way to think about it is that if the user needs access to data, then what's easier - scrolling or some other mechanism
  2. Second aspect is how do they comprehend this large amount of data. This is where there are many techniques that can be applied - color coding values/cells based on a certain scale - e.g. all numbers greater than 100 are in green, between 50-100 are orange etc. You can add charts, allow filters, expand/collapse some data elements etc.
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Thanks for the tips, Alok, the bits about color-coding may be especially helpful, however, since these are mostly text datagrids, I don't know how open my engineers would be to displaying the results in graphs and charts rather than numbers (path of least resistance and all that). Filtering seems to be the way they are most receptive to reduce the amount of data displayed on screen. –  Eddie Prislac Aug 23 '13 at 20:19

The point at which a user sees information that they don't want/need is the point where there is too much data in the table. Some users will need to see a lot others might not need to see all of this data. If you have many different audiences that have different needs then you should have a way for each user to adjust the presentation to suit their needs.

I am currently working on a project that has a datagrid with upwards of one hundred possible columns. This would be unmanageable so we allow users to hide/display columns and save the "layout". Users can create many layouts that have different column combinations that suit specific tasks.

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