Progressive Disclosure: A Progressive Way of Learning

In the last couple of weeks, I have had a chance to revisit some of the concepts that I read during my first stint as a technical writer. Given that, I chose to read those chapters, which I felt I had forgotten. To my surprise, I realized what I had read previously was more complex than I could remember. And, it took me a while to even understand what I was reading!

It then dawned on me: Previously, I had read books cover-to-cover, which means, I had read the basics first and then graduated to more complex chapters. And the next moment I was in front of my computer, searching about the probable reasons for me to miss such a simple thing. Cognition, after all, is a slow, gradual process. And, there I was.

While it is true that I read only those chapters, which I forgot, it is equally true that I should have begun from the first chapter. Learning is a gradual process, and it grows in time. And, that is why reading only the forgotten chapters did not really help me. What I found on the internet, matched what I had encountered: a typical case of progressive disclosure of information.

The concept: Progressive Disclosure

Progressive Disclosure is one of the most valued, effective, and useful techniques to bring forth the concept of human-computer interaction, and although the technique has been around since early 1980s, it is only now that we see its real application. Software and web interfaces, these days, demand more attention than ever before. On one hand we eye for simplicity in our software application, and on the other hand, we look for more functionality, better features, and a compact product.

One of the best descriptions of the concept of progressive disclosure is given by Jakob Neilson [Source: Wikipedia], who states it as a mark of good usability. According to him, progressive disclosure is where “you show a small number of features to the less experienced user”, to help them get started and “yet have a larger number of features available for the expert to call up”.

For the blog, I have restricted the discussion to just one instance of application. But, it is needless to mention that how you apply what you learn is entirely your choice in the end.


The application: Software and web design

In the field of information technology, progressive disclosure plays a vital role by involving readers into the virtual experience. Companies invest great deals of money to design user interfaces (UIs) that are compact, intuitive, effective, and interactive. Although, the dynamics greatly differ for software, which are used by specific set of users, with predefined parameters for their need, aptitude, age, and skill set, the concept of disclosure is still the same. For instance, a greater deal of time is put into designing UIs for web sites or web applications that are interactive for all age groups and genders.

As I read more about the concept, I recall a friend who worked as an Experience Manager, with a well-known mobile-handset brand. His profile required him to observe random people, called subjects, on the field and record and present his observations to the design-development teams, who used the observations to improve their UIs.

The impact: Marketing tools

More number of companies today are inclined to know what their customers feel about their products. Companies are using various techniques to understand the nuances and boil down the entire processes to a logical sequence of content or functionality, which offers the maximum impact. Keyword searches, and context-sensitive advertisements are such examples where automated systems pop-up advertisements based the user behavior over the internet.

For example, I use the internet to read; mostly newspapers and articles, which are spread across a number of pages. As is obvious, the news snippets are provided on the first web page, and the subsequent pages contain details. As I move from one page to another I notice the number of advertisements that pop-up, or the number of banners I hover upon. Every inch of the web page is occupied with complex engines and logic that run in the backend while I scroll through my articles. Not to my amusement, the first couple of pages have more advertisements that relate to sales or discounts, thus serve a generic-set of readers. The last couple of pages, however, relate to a more specific set of readers, and contain advertisements that interest to the selected few. It is obvious that not all news interest everybody. Each news or article is meant to be read by only a targeted set of people. And, this is how the marketing people design their campaigns.

The outcome: Higher recall quotient

As discussed, a typical progressive disclosure takes users through stepped processes, from one point to another, beginning with only the first step. Users, therefore, develop cognition and hence in later stages get exposed to more amount of learning at a given point in time.

For example, a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) guide for a toolkit will run you through a series of inputs on operational processes involved; beginning only with introduction to the toolkit. The idea is to carefully offer planned teasers to help develop cognition. Learning is only a byproduct; the real task is of getting users involved into the activities. Of course, at the end of the procedure you will be able to use the toolkit to accomplish what you planned, but to take things a step ahead, you will also be able to recall most of the things you read. Gradual, but sure learning improves retention. Going forward, you can practice to master the skills.

The need: Documentation

Over the last couple of years, I have learned that I need to put into practice whatever I do. Now, that is one more point about progressive cognition. Not only does it improve the retention capacity of concepts read, but it sometimes surfaces some untold concepts as well. And from where I can see, the concept is to stay in documentation.

Documents, such as the on-screen help, and web interfaces, such as the web sites can be some easy subjects for applying progressive disclosure. Complex points can be provided with “Read More” links that trail the readers to more, advanced-level content. Action buttons on web sites can link visitors to pages that explain complexities in great details. Additionally, you can provide translation, metadata links, and cross-references, if applicable.

In a book that I read recently, the writer explains concepts in detail, but only gradually. In the preceding chapter, the writer provides a reference of the content that will soon follow. Thus, the writer creates a mixture of excitement and curiosity, along with some questions on what will follow. Marketing collaterals, designed in such a manner, could trigger the same possibilities for us. A detail-level functional document, per se, is not effective enough if it does not follow a quick-information booklet, which summarizes key features and improvements for current release. For example, you can ask your web designers for sites/pages that deliver verticals of contents. You can provide snippets, such as the first few paragraphs of that content on your web site and direct the prospects to more details of the content. That way users consume more information than they presumed they could.

Keeping similar topics together is one more technique. Remember, when your mom told you to bring a list of items from the grocer? Didn’t she keep a separate sub-list, each for toiletries, consumables, and vegetables? The real magic is in placing similar things together, and in case of documentation: similar questions together. Readers, in such a case, consider more details than they require.

You can also prepare some topic-specific presentations that help readers in finding answers for their queries. For software companies, it is an easy way to address customers who cannot afford your consultation services. Presentations cross-referred in DIY guides can be a great combination of powerful tools and visual appeal.

During my stint as an independent writer, Black Merchant – the client is into finance management – asked me to place a free retirement calculator in his web site and designed FAQs for it (back then I did not know about progressive disclosure, but I managed to do the right thing), which would collect information from the visitors in an abstract-to-specific form. Visitors could later send their queries to him, and in return he could plan their finance. That is more of a two-way progressive disclosure!

The way ahead: Conclusion

Is it always helpful to use a progressive way of disclosure? Well, it depends. I have seen a lot of them who are very particular with the way they question things. They want a search engine that pops-up the exact answer they search for. For such cases, the easiest way to disclose information is to keep everything in packets. You can then serve them the entire set of packets and let them choose their packet.

With most of us, however, it is only the stepped approach that fetches best results. For example, I do not remember having read chapters of Physics in the first grade. I graduated to the grade they thought Physics could be taught to. After all, that is the way all of us have learned. One layer of learning over another; gradual, but sure.

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