Progressive disclosure is an interaction design pattern that sequences information and actions across several screens (e.g., a step-by-step signup flow). The purpose is to lower the chances that users will feel overwhelmed by what they encounter. By disclosing information progressively, interaction designers reveal only the essentials, and help users manage the complexity of feature-rich websites or applications.
Usability expert Jakob Nielsen defines progressive disclosure as a technique that “defers advanced or rarely used features to a secondary screen, making applications easier to learn and less error-prone.” Progressive disclosure follows the typical notion of moving from “abstract to specific,” including the sequencing of user behaviors or interactions. In other words, progressive disclosure is not just about displaying information from abstract to specific. At the practical level, encouraging the user to move from completing simple actions or tasks to executing more complex ones is what lies at the heart of the philosophy. Disclosing more complex, secondary features only if a user asks for them provides a two-tiered environment where most users can proceed with their tasks effectively and efficiently. This allows casual users to proceed without frustration while keeping advanced users satisfied with higher-end functionality.
Progressive disclosure is a concept that has been used since at least the early 1980s. The technique gained the attention of user interface specialists through John M. Carroll and Mary Rosson’s lab work at IBM in 1983, where they found that hiding advanced functionality early on led to an increased success of its use later on. Appreciating the user’s state of readiness is vital for designers working in all industries. By gearing a design around the notion that approachability and ease of use must take precedence over intricate use possibilities during engagement with a user, interaction designers can greatly improve the chances of their products’ success.