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Progressive Reduction Presumption

Sunday, June 9, 2013 - 12:00

I recently read a blog post about the concept of 'Progressive Reduction' I found presumptuous and unnecessary. Essentially the concept is to minimize the interface of your site dynamically as users become more and more proficient.

The example given on the site (above) is that of a submit button which features a checkmark with a text label. In time if a user demonstrated familiarity with this element the text is omitted leaving only the check mark within the button. Then finally only a checkmark alone.

Call me cynical, but I think this is just UX guys showing off. To make my point I will characteristically draw an analogy to the physical world. Imagine it were possible to progressively reduce the look of a STOP sign for the 'power user'.

Your typical STOP sign is identified by a few common characteristics:

  • It says STOP
  • It is red
  • It is an octagon
  • It is of a particular size
  • It appears in a similar location

How would we progressively reduce one?  Well, we might begin by removing the word STOP to rely on its iconic shape and color. Perhaps we could go further and make it smaller or even choose a color that is less distracting.  My point is not that this new version of the sign will never work, my point is – why bother since it won’t work any better. 

The driver’s instantaneous recognition of the sign is the reward for their proficiency.  An experienced driver doesn’t read a STOP sign or think twice about it.  It becomes muscle memory – subconscious progressive reduction.

Attempting to simulate this process programmatically is folly because:

  1. It presumes to know the correct time for this transition to occur based on some sort of algorithm rather than allowing the driver to work at their own speed.
  2. It presumes to know how to best reduce the interface without understanding if an individual user is partial to some aspect of the design.  Perhaps a driver is color blind or illiterate.
  3. It presumes that users will never regress in their proficiency.  What if a driver used to frequent an intersection, but no longer does and has now forgotten there was a stop sign?
  4. It presumes the sign will never have to legitimately change – in which case you would be desensitizing the driver by constantly forcing them to pause and reassess the evolving communication.

Instead of wasting time designing interfaces such as this with video game-like skill settings UX designers should go back to concentrating on Jared Spool's "Knowledge Gap". That is, producing one solution that communicates what their audience is missing to be successful in accomplishing a task.

By contrast Progressive Reduction would seem to be a solution for the non-existent, self indulgent "Minimalism Gap". In this instance familiar, easily understood designs must be made increasingly more aloof so as to not overwhelm power users with their own proficiency.

John Gavula
Contributed By John Gavula

John is the creative director of Gavula Design. He has provided design and illustrator services for many of New York and the region's biggest brand consultancies. Leveraging this experience, and his multidisciplinary background he now works closely with Gavula Design’s clients as a trusted branding partner and steward.