It's much easier to create a calm, elegant interface when your content is simple and static, but in some web applications, the content and interactions are inherently more complicated and dynamic.

What are some examples of web applications that manage to make complex content and interactions feel calm and orderly without sacrificing functionality?

For instance, I remain impressed with Gmail, which may not be beautiful, but densely packs functionality into a calm interface (whereas even the latest beta of Yahoo! mail continues to feel loud and obnoxious).

  • I think Gmail's pretty damn beautiful. But maybe that's the Tuftian part of me talking.
    – Rahul
    Aug 2, 2011 at 7:22
  • @Rahul, especially if you look at as "beauty in action" rather than static graphic design... and the latest "Preview (dense)" theme takes the graphic design up a few notches IMHO. Aug 2, 2011 at 13:55

7 Answers 7


I think some good examples are:

I believe what you're asking about here is data visualization. How do you present a lot of information in an intuitive, and sensible way? I'd suggest reading Edward Tufte's work as well.

  • Nice list! I'm a big Tufte believer (got to his talk a few years back - he's great in person, even if he spent too much time belittling powerpoint). His bias towards information density is exactly what I was after with this question. Aug 2, 2011 at 14:09

Stackexchange sites are elegent
I love the interaction

  • I totally agree! Their fairly informationally-dense, too. Jun 16, 2011 at 17:23

I find that grooveshark is a great reference for all kinds of questions about complicated web apps UX.

  • I almost put grooveshark in the original post. What they also manage to cleverly balance is advertising with functionality - so often a place where the UX goes out the window! Jun 18, 2011 at 16:32

It's never fun to fill out, but online tax software is a prime example of this. Some online insurance applications too. Both examples are restrictively complex. In other words, tax laws are complicated and so is business insurance risk analysis. But the good websites have done a lot to simplify a complex process.

In fact, I worked on Techinsurance.com for about 6 years. That's a site which has incredibly dynamic questions with complex dependencies. In total there are somewhere on order of 400 potential questions, only a small fraction of which are presented to any given user. We had to be careful with the wording of each and every question, make sure it is asked the way it needs to be asked without being too wordy. For additional explanations, context specific help would be available if needed. Needless to say, it's very important to do everything possible to make things easy on the user.

One of our greatest inspirations was the online tax filing at hrblock.com. They've done a really good job of providing context-sensitive help and stripping down the UI to make it easier to get through it.

  • This brings up an interesting topic: some domains are just plain irreducibly complicated. In the 37 signals world, you try to pare back the functionality to its essence - this is not easily accomplished when the final work product simply has to be a 37 page tax form (accurately filled out). This is just the kind of problem space I was thinking about. Jun 18, 2011 at 16:35
  • Agreed. That was a unique aspect of my job back then, and it was definitely a good learning experience. Nowadays the work I do has a great deal more freedom involved, which of course brings with it a different kind of challenge. Jun 19, 2011 at 18:28

May be you may want to see approach of Checkvist tool (outliner/task manager with hierarchy, search, tags, collaboration). Most of its functionality is available via keyboard, and it has a clean UI. (Disclaimer: I'm one of the devs).

  • +1 it is impressive (even if you are a dev)... Jun 17, 2011 at 6:31

I personally visit ui pattern/snip sites so find bits of ui that I'm looking for and if one is interesting I go and visit the site and see how it all works together.

I was going to list more but as a new user I'm limited to only posting two links. Google UI Patterns and Dribble for two more sites.


Harvest is an elegant time tracking and billing management web app dealing with complex information.

You should also have a look at Subernova (Project management).

Google Finance and Google Analytics also deal with rich-data in a pretty "elegant" way.

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