A strategy for managing information complexity in which only necessary or requested information is displayed at any given time.
Progressive disclosure involves separating information into multiple layers and only presenting layers that are necessary or relevant. It is primarily used to prevent information overload, and is employed in computer user interfaces, instructional materials, and the design of physical spaces.1
Progressive disclosure keeps displays clean and uncluttered and helps people manage complexity without becoming confused, frustrated, or disoriented. For example, infrequently used controls in software interfaces are often concealed in dialog boxes that are invoked by clicking a More button. People who do not need to use the controls never see them. For more advanced users, the options are readily available. In either case, the design is simplified by showing only the most frequently required controls by default, and making additional controls available on request.2
Learning efficiency benefits greatly from the use of progressive disclosure. Information presented to a person who is not interested or ready to process it is effectively noise. Information that is gradually and progressively disclosed to a learner as they need or request it is better processed and perceived as more relevant. The number of errors is significantly reduced using this method, and consequently the amount of time and frustration spent recovering from errors is also reduced.3
Progressive disclosure is also used in the physical world to manage the perception of complexity and activity. For example, progressive disclosure is found in the design of entry points for modern theme park rides. Exceedingly long lines not only frustrate people in line, but also discourage new people from the ride. Theme park designers progressively disclose discrete segments of the line (sometimes supplemented with entertainment), so that no one, in or out of the line, ever sees the line in its entirety.
Use progressive disclosure to reduce information complexity, especially when people interacting with the design are novices or infrequent users. Hide infrequently used controls or information, but make them readily available through some simple operation, such as pressing a More button. Progressive disclosure is also an effective method for leading people through complex procedures, and should be considered when such procedures are a part of a design.
See also Chunking, Errors, Layering, and Performance Load.