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When designing tables I am always wondering how many columns are too much.

I commonly have tables that act as an overview of all the items, which can then be opened to show all the details. On one hand I want to provide the user with an informative overview, but I don't want the UI to get cluttered or the user to get overwhelmed with all the information and visual noise.

Another downside of adding columns is responsiveness. It doesn't scale well to smaller devices.

So this led to the question: Are there any resources (standards/recommendations/guidelines) regarding table design to base these decisions on?

Just to clarify, I am not looking for personal opinions, only resources based on research.

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  • If there is data to be included, you can be assured that some user somewhere will want to see it in the grid. For this reason, it is usually best to allow the user to configure which columns are included in the table. You can then provide the common ones as defaults.
    – musefan
    Feb 8, 2021 at 14:23

3 Answers 3

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The maximum number of columns you should show is = to the number of columns that would be important to the user when using data to make a decision. If only three of the data columns are important then the maximum number of columns should be three. I do not believe there is a "hard" number on maximum number of columns because tables are a utility, you need to customize it to provide the proper utility to fit your users needs.

Tables do not scale. It is still very hard to display tables on small devices and it is best to find a different solution to presenting the data if possible.

If you are not sure what would be important to the user one option would be to allow the user to decide ie, select which columns should be shown.

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It depends on the columns widths and content type (long words, large font sizes etc). Maintain min and Max width to each column, for a bit of fluid layout. If the table has fixed widths then it is easy to know where the table can overflow and handle by having a responsive layout breakpoint. If there are too many columns then better to show max 5 main columns and hide all other data in 6th columns actions (open details in popup, edit row, delete row). The showing of said 5 main columns again depends on the content and column widths.

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Well if you talk about recommendations or guidelines, you should check miller's law which states that a human mind can remember up to 7(+-2) items once. so based on that min of 7 and max of 9 coloums would be sufficient for them to recall and perceive information.

link- https://uxdesign.cc/millers-law-is-there-a-magical-number-in-ux-design-7999f92ef7b8#:~:text=Miller's%20Law%20states%20that%20the,group%20information%20into%20smaller%20chunks.

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    I don't agree with this logic... the whole point in displaying data is so that users don't need to remember it.
    – musefan
    Feb 8, 2021 at 14:24
  • I replied just in the context of visual ease. yes, you can use the max number of required col but those tables are not that usable at all. it simply increases the cognitive load. Feb 8, 2021 at 16:22
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    Just be aware of the application/implication of the 'magic number 7': psychology.stackexchange.com/questions/672/…
    – Michael Lai
    Feb 9, 2021 at 3:35
  • Miller's law would be applicable to the information that one needs to retain in the working memory. Tabular data is not intended to be memorised but processed or analysed.
    – ikartik90
    Oct 5, 2021 at 15:57
  • Here are many examples of responsive tables: codepen.io/collection/AdGVYP/#
    – Steve
    Oct 5, 2021 at 22:28

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