Progressive Reduction: Learn & Adapt

With the era of flat design upon us, designers are pushed to create minimalistic, simplified interfaces that are free of extraneous visual elements.  This creates a streamlined look, but has the potential to interfere with usability if it hinders the discoverability of features.

As a result, designers again endure the common struggle to figure out how to introduce new users to features and interactions in an accessible way, but without being patronizing towards experienced users with too much hand-holding.

What if instead of a one-size-fits all solution, the interface could adapt to the user’s level of proficiency?

Allan Grinshtein calls this approach progressive reduction.  In his article from earlier this year, Grinshtein introduces this concept by explaining Layer Vault’s process of simplifying its UI elements over time, adapting to the user’s experiential knowledge of the site.  The example Grinshtein offers is that of a button.  To a new user, the button will be identified with both explicit and implicit design cues, defined by a shaped outline, a label, and an icon.  As the user becomes more familiar with the interface, the explicit cues are phased out.

First, the label will be left off as users become accustomed to the iconography, then the shaped outline will disappear, leaving just an icon behind.  The usage of each feature is tracked to help determine the user’s level of proficiency and then one of a few predefined states will be displayed to match that level.  If a user has lapsed in his or her use of the interface, the interface regresses back to the previous state to combat experience decay.

The means of altering an interface to match a user’s behavior and level of understanding is definitely a unique approach.  Instead of creating static personas for each user group, designers will also need to consider a timeline of use for each of these personas.  The timeline will need to address how familiarity of a system increases overtime and how the system can adapt to satisfy changing needs.  When we think about responsive and adaptive web design, we typically think of how the presentation of a webpage adapts to the size of the viewport.  Progressive reduction opens up the possibility for responsive design to mean that the design, placement, and type of content displayed could vary depending on user familiarity and patterns of use.

Here at THINK, we are already thinking of potential ways to incorporate this technology.  Progressive reduction allows design teams to create interfaces that are efficient to use for both users that are novice and advanced, frequent and infrequent.  Advanced and frequent users have a streamlined, de-cluttered experience, while novice and infrequent users get the help and guidance they need.  Both groups are able to accomplish tasks quickly and efficiently.  It would be a great tool to use for apps or websites that serve large user populations with different patterns of behavior.

If you have tried implementing progressive reduction in any of your projects, or have noticed it being used in sites and applications, let us know! We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

For more information about technical implementation of progressive reduction, read Layer Vault’s follow-up here.