Techniques that reveal controls on hover (as used by apps like twitter) have been suggested as a way to simplify an interface and focus attention on content. However I wonder how many people fail to notice these controls and as such never make use of them.

  • Have you seen or conducted research that indicates the effectiveness of these controls?
  • What techniques can be used to improve the effectiveness when used?

Some examples of the twitter controls revealed by hover:

Older version but demonstrates the concept: enter image description here

Newer version with hover and click states: enter image description here

  • 1
    There is no (official) hover event on mobile/touch platforms. I think you are confusing your question by including mobile. Perhaps remove the mobile twitter and refine your question to just hover-reveal components for desktop environments.
    – mawcsco
    Jun 26, 2012 at 13:45
  • Good point. I see it as related in that it is initially hidden until the user acts to reveal. However for the purpose of getting answers to this question I'll leave it with the desktop examples only.
    – Jay
    Jun 26, 2012 at 13:47
  • I think that's a good idea and ask another question about the touch-reveal pattern that twitter uses. (As a side note, I absolutely hate that tool, there is no obvious way to make it go away.)
    – mawcsco
    Jun 26, 2012 at 13:52
  • This isn't really a complete answer to your question, but I've seen the technique of showing the first item's hover controls after the page loads for a few seconds to give the user an idea that there is something there. Jun 26, 2012 at 13:54
  • @MattLavoie Thanks. I've seen this too. It works for me. However I'm mindful that I'm not the average user. Therefore I'm curious to understand other's experience with testing the effectiveness of these controls and whether the technique such as the one you suggested made a meaningful impact.
    – Jay
    Jun 26, 2012 at 13:59

1 Answer 1


The Windows UX Interaction Guide is explicit: “Don’t depend upon mouse hover effects to reveal progressive disclosure.” (p32) At the very least you need something that clearly indicates that commands are available (e.g., a label saying “Actions” or a fly-out arrow). It still makes control use inconvenient (the user can’t aim for the desired control until after it’s disclosed), but at least the user has a clue that something can be done. Similarly, if your content objects (e.g., list items) look selectable, then it's okay to show the controls for an object when the user hovers over any part of the object (or even wait until the user actually selects the object) because at least you're showing that you support interaction, just not what specific commands.

IMO, the use of hidden controls is way overdone in many web apps. I suspect their problem is so patently obvious, no one has bothered to do the research. Would you give someone a masters degree for showing that users are more likely to miss controls when they’re hidden than when they’re not? That finding doesn’t advance HCI theory.

However, if you want one datapoint, I can tell you that I was personally frustrated to discover that in upgrading by Acrobat plugin, I’d lost the simple ability to save the pdf. It took me quite a while to discover that, of course, a user is supposed to “mow” the window with the mouse to discover if there are any hidden controls. It’s like a horror movie where the protagonist has to try the right book in a bookcase to open the secret passage. I understand the desire to focus on content, but why are we making our controls secret?

  • Urgh, that PDF 'feature' really bugs me too. Even when you know what you need to do it still doesn't always appear so I spend ages shaking the mouse around until the toolbar appears.
    – JonW
    Jun 26, 2012 at 14:26
  • @Michael Zuschlag This is why I think it is worth attention. I wonder whether the trend to use these will continue despite explicit guides otherwise? I've noticed that responsive and mobile designs are more likely to use progressive disclosure. Will some previously accepted rules may evolve over time to cope with new conventions and contexts.
    – Jay
    Jun 26, 2012 at 14:43

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