What is Progressive Disclosure?

Progressive Disclosure – Best Interaction Design technique?

In UX Design, the concept of “progressive disclosure” is recognized as a powerful interaction design technique. But what exactly does it entail, and how does it enhance user engagement? Let’s delve into the depths of this strategy to uncover its benefits and potential pitfalls.

Understanding Progressive Disclosure

Progressive disclosure stands as an innovative interaction design technique that strategically unfolds information and actions across multiple screens. The primary aim is to alleviate user overwhelm, a common hurdle in complex digital interfaces (Spillers, 2004). Renowned usability expert Nielsen (2006) defines it as a method that reserves advanced or seldom-used features for secondary screens, making applications more intuitive and reducing the chances of errors.

This method operates by gradually revealing essential elements, thereby assisting users in navigating feature-rich websites or applications. It follows the principle of transitioning from general to specific, aligning with the sequential flow of user behaviors and interactions. In simpler terms, progressive disclosure is not solely about showcasing abstract and specific data, but rather about guiding users from straightforward to intricate actions or tasks.

The Core Tenets

At its core, progressive disclosure involves relocating intricate and less frequently used options away from the main user interface to secondary screens. The philosophy is to provide more information within easy reach while preventing user overwhelm from excessive features and choices (Spillers, 2004).

Originating in the early 1980s, the concept of progressive disclosure gained prominence through the work of Carroll and Rosson (Carroll, 1983). Their experimentation with hiding advanced functionality initially led to greater user success later on, a phenomenon they termed the “training wheels” approach (Carroll, 1984). However, empirical research on its effectiveness remains limited, and its application on the web presents unique challenges due to the nonlinear nature of hypertext and the diverse user base.

Modernization and New Definitions

As technology evolves, the applicability of progressive disclosure extends beyond static applications to dynamic web interfaces and mobile devices. Examples like Microsoft Office 2007’s task ribbons and iPhone’s pinch-and-zoom interactions illustrate the need for new definitions and formats of progressive disclosure. The key lies in adapting the technique to suit various displays and user expectations.

Take Google Maps

Google Maps provides a nice example of Progressive Disclosure. Information is provided at different levels of detail:

  1. Initial Overview of the Route. This provides a high level understand of the route to take.
  2. Step-by-Step Instructions: This provides instruction on each turn and action needed. This is revealed progressively as you approach each action.
  3. Traffic and Alternate Routes: Additional information may be provided about traffic conditions and alternative routes. This information is provided only when relevant to assist the user in making informed decisions.
  4. Points of Interest: Information about restaurants, gas stations, or other points of interest is revealed as the user selects.
  5. Satellite View and Street View: This allows the user to decide if they prefer a view that is different from the default view.

Usability Guru’s Perspective

Renowned usability expert Jakob Nielsen has hailed progressive disclosure as a premier interaction design technique (Nielsen, 2000; Nielsen, 2002). He emphasizes the importance of gradually introducing features to cater to users of varying expertise levels. His insights also lead to actionable guidelines for effective implementation, such as optimizing the balance between primary and secondary features and ensuring a clear progression path.

Harnessing User Insights for Optimal Design

Progressive disclosure thrives when grounded in user observations and field studies. By comprehending user workflows and behaviors, designers can prioritize and sequence content and functionality to align with user needs (Spillers, 2004; Nielsen, 2006). The technique functions as a contextual research tool, yielding design decisions based on real-world user behavior rather than ad-hoc assumptions.

On the web, progressive disclosure’s fundamental principle remains to show pertinent information based on user tasks. This means displaying only information relevant to the user’s current focus. This approach promotes seamless navigation and aids in simplifying complex interactions, as demonstrated in Internet configurator tools (Forrester Research, 2003).

Pros and Cons of Progressive Disclosure

Progressive disclosure can accommodate diverse user needs, simplify interface complexity, and enhance user success. Benefits include minimizing cognitive overload, aligning tasks with user expectations, and facilitating task chunking. However, drawbacks such as delayed access and potential over-constraining must be considered to ensure its effective implementation.


Progressive disclosure holds the potential to guide users through interfaces by presenting information in digestible chunks. While its misuse can lead to confusion, a well-executed strategy can optimize user experiences across a wide array of digital platforms. Embracing user insights and staying attuned to evolving design paradigms will be key in harnessing the full potential of this powerful interaction design technique.



  1. Carroll, John M. and Rosson , Mary Beth. (1987) “Paradox of the Active User”. In Interfacing Thought: Cognitive Aspects of the Human-Computer Interaction. Edited by John M. Carroll. Cambridge, MA MIT Press pp 80-111.
  2. Carroll, J.M. (1983). Presentation and form in user interface architecture. Byte, 8/12, 113-122.
  3. Carroll, John M. and Carrithers, C. (1984): Training Wheels in a User Interface. In Communications of the ACM, 27 (8) pp. 800-806
  4. Carroll, John M. and Carrithers, C. (1984): Blocking learner error states in a training-wheels system. In Human Factors, 26 (4) pp. 377-389
  5. Dalton, John. Temkin, Bruce and Michelle Amato. (2003) Forrester Research, “Online Configurators Need An Overhaul”. Forrester Research: December 2003 report.
  6. Nielsen, Jakob (2000). Slashdot. Jakob Nielsen Answers Usability Questions. Accessed Mar 03, 2000  http://developers.slashdot.org/article.pl?no_d2=1&sid=00/03/03/096223
  7. Nielsen, Jakob (2006). Progressive Disclosure Accessed December 4, 2006: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/progressive-disclosure.html
  8. Sitepoint (2002) “Interview Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D.” http://www.sitepoint.com/article/interview-jakob-nielsen-ph-d/4
  9. Spillers, Frank (2004). Progressive Disclosure- the best interaction design technique? Accessed March 25, 2004 http://experiencedynamics.blogs.com/site_search_usability/2004/03/progressive_dis.html
  10. Spillers, Frank (2007). “AJAX Usability Checklist”. Accessed December 31st 2007: http://experiencedynamics.blogs.com/site_search_usability/2007/12/ajax-usability.html


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