In any primary user interface screen, a designer must find a balance between too little and too much information.

Often, adding additional status information is cheap, technically. Therefore, some (not I) believe: If we can show it, why not? More information is always better.*

At some point, though, the delicate balance is lost and the view becomes too noisy — even if there is "space" to put it all, the presence alone of information that is infrequently used causes user friction when trying to quickly take in the more important information.

So, how do you find the right balance, and how do you know when you are exceeding it? When designing a primary user interface screen, how do you decide whether additional information which could be added to the screen is actually a net negative?

* Note: the question is not intended to simply ask for arguments against that statement - I think most designers already agree that its false. It's about how to find the balance — whether that "more" is bad or good.

7 Answers 7


I'd recommend reading Donald Norman's Living With Complexity. In the book he differentiates between a complicated (or confusing) interface and a complex (or advanced) interface. He also discusses how to identify when increasing the complexity of an interface is worthwhile, among other topics.

As you add more and more information on a screen, that screen will either become more complicated or more complex. Complexity is not always a bad thing; in fact sometimes it is necessary. After all, we live in a complex world.

How important is each piece of information to your users? If certain information is only important to a small portion of your users, you could consider a hide/show interface (ideally the settings will persist). Then after you have finished the design, perform a usability test so see if you have too much or too little. The type of test would really depend on the nature of the UI.


A good, but admittedly rather emotional way to counter this argument is this quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

For me, it's more important to find out if a piece of information is of any use whatsoever to the end user, and if a case cannot be made, it's not going in.

One of my favourite examples is the formatting of time stamps in UIs - there are very few use cases that actually require showing fractions of seconds, even though it's very easy for developers to do so. In my experience, even the necessity of seconds is often debatable.

  • 2
    love that quote
    – colmcq
    May 4, 2011 at 11:53
  • 1
    Great! And in a similar vein, Krug's third law of usability: Get rid of half the words on each page then get rid of half what's left. [From Don't make me think] Aug 10, 2011 at 14:57

I disagree with your statement that "More information is always better."

I think an elegant design communicates the necessary information as simply as possible.

  • To be clear: that's not my statement. That's just a classic argument. I don't believe it either.
    – Nicole
    May 4, 2011 at 3:48

Test it!

Work with users to understand what they need to get their job done. Present that. See if they can get their job done. If they can't, that's evidence you may not be providing enough information (among other problems).

Test adding more information. Can they still get their job done? Did they use the additional information? (Query during usability testing.) If not, prompt them; once prompted, do they make use of the new information? No? Consider yanking it out again.


"More information is always better."

What do you mean by information? more functions, more descriptive text, help?

Different levels of expertise need different types and different amounts of information. In the point I raise above, for example, expert users are unlikely to require the same level of textual information that a novice user might require, perhaps because they are used to completing a certain task. Conversely, a novice user might not need the short-cut functions that an expert user would use, but would need inline instructions or help.

Summary: information users' need to complete a task varies and can be complex or simple depending on the context; "it's a bit more complicated than that"


"More information is always better."

I'm unsure about using this quote in a UX setting. The concept has general applicability in the realm of public policy - e.g., how much do we tell people about Hurricane Katrina, terrorist threat levels, AIDS vectors, etc - and less obvious meaning in the realm of user experience design. (Could just be my ignorance - do you have a direct quote from someone?)

Having said that, test the interface with users. You're looking to establish the optimal point of disclosure - avoiding excessive cognitive load. Without testing it, I'm not sure how you could really know where you stand on such an issue.


Generally you want to go for the minimum detail required to give users a positive experience.

Finding the right balance is about thoughtfully, creatively thinking design through, and testing testing testing.

And it's not just about the right mix of text; look at how changes in color, ui elements, images or other elements can make something so clear that you can cut more text.

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