Progressive Disclosure Can Be An Elegant Solution

Posted By Debbie on March 9, 2015

Once upon a time, when you built a questionnaire or form, you included every possible question and field, even if the answer isn’t needed or applicable. Nowadays, we can do better.

Some sites’ ideas of doing better is greying out fields they think you don’t need. For example, in an eCommerce checkout, you might hit a page with a set of “shipping address” fields and a set of “billing address” fields. If you check a box that they are the same, some sites will grey out one set so you don’t have to fill both out.

The better solution is progressive disclosure.

Progressive disclosure is where you only show the necessary fields or questions as the behavior of the user indicates. For example, if the user checks the checkbox for shipping and billing addresses being the same, you might choose to hide the billing address set of fields and labels.

Progressive disclosure means that as the user moves through the form or questionnaire, the form acts “smart,” only revealing relevant fields and hiding ones that are not relevant.

Another good example of this can be found on websites where you fill out information to get a quote on life insurance. Some of those forms might ask if you have insurance now with radio buttons for yes or no. The next field is “How much insurance do you currently have?” This field does not have to be shown until the user answers “yes” to having insurance. The field would be hidden if the user chose yes but then changed to no.

That’s progressive disclosure. As the user progresses through the experience, only what is needed is disclosed. It means the end of using text like, “if yes, answer this question,” or “if no, skip to question 3.” We don’t need to make web or app forms look like paper forms.

Here’s what it looks like when you don’t do it.

Ah, filling out job applications online…

ScreenHunter_199 Feb. 05 08.35

Our user has never been employed here and she has no relatives employed by this organization. This form could have looked shorter, neater, less cluttered, and like less work without the unnecessary presence of the follow-up questions.

ScreenHunter_200 Feb. 05 08.40

If you have been using six names (the one you entered already in the job form plus five more) in the last seven years, looking for a job may not be your biggest problem. Is it even legal to do that? I guess, but WOW.

And does this company imagine that their target audience changes their names annually? Or is this a leftover, lazy, “just make it look like our paper form” adventure?

Although I’ve been married and divorced, I’ve had the same name my whole life. When I get married again, I will keep my current name. I don’t need ANY of these fields. I have no previous name. This is a lot of space that could have been saved by progressive disclosure.

“Have you ever had a previous name?” yes/no radio buttons

If no, then move on to the next question. If yes, then show one row of the previous name interface. Add a button or link that says something like, “Add another previous name.” That way, people only see the number or rows that they need.

Time to catch up with technology.

If your company’s or client’s web forms still look like the way paper forms are designed, it’s time to upgrade and update. Use progressive disclosure to only show what it needed when it’s needed. Hide what might not be needed by default. Disclose it as people move through and form logic mandates the need for the follow up question or additional information.