Eric Chung UX designer focused on creating meaningful user value and business impact for B2B products. I also write about design.

Using progressive disclosure for complex content

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Using Progressive Disclosure

Have you ever come across a user interface that felt overwhelming? Maybe it was a website with too many buttons or a mobile app with too much information crammed onto one screen. The amount of visual noise can make it a bit hard to focus.

When it comes to displaying complex content and large amounts of information, the challenge is to make it easily digestible for the user. This is where progressive disclosure comes in. By gradually revealing information as needed, progressive disclosure can help users avoid feeling overwhelmed or lost when faced with a large amount of content.

Progressive disclosure can actually make it easier for users to navigate and understand complex content as it helps reduce cognitive overload. By presenting information in a structured and organized way, users can quickly find the information they need and understand how it fits into the larger context.

Breaking down information in this way can be especially important when dealing with technical or specialized content, where understanding the relationships between different pieces of information is key.

In this article, we’ll explore when and where to use progressive disclosure, techniques for implementing it, and best practices for using it effectively.

What is progressive disclosure?

Progressive disclosure is a design technique used to reveal information gradually to users. It is commonly used in product design to present complex content or large amounts of information in a way that is easier to digest for users.

Rather than showing all the information at once, designers break it down into smaller, more manageable pieces and show it over time as the user interacts with the interface.

Applying progressive disclosure to a design can reduce the user’s cognitive workload. Cognitive workload refers to the amount of mental effort required to complete a task or process information.

When users are presented with too much information at once, their cognitive workload can increase, leading to frustration, confusion, and decreased performance. On the other hand, reducing cognitive workload can lead to faster task completion times and increased accuracy, as well as improved user satisfaction and engagement.

Use cases for progressive disclosure

Progressive disclosure can be used in a variety of contexts, but it is particularly useful when dealing with complex content, large amounts of information, and limited screen space. Here are some examples of when and where progressive disclosure can be used.

Complex content

When dealing with complex content, it can be overwhelming to present it all at once. Progressive disclosure can be used to break down the content into manageable pieces, making it easier for the user to understand.

In Google Maps, when searching for directions from one place to another, the user is provided with a few options. This allows them to view on a high level the route, duration, and distance of the trip.

By clicking into the route, the user is taken into a detailed view, which provides a more in-depth look into the exact directions that will take them from Point A to Point B. This is a good example of using progressive disclosure to communicate complex content to the user when it’s relevant to them.

Google Maps Example
Source: Google Maps

Large amounts of information

When dealing with large amounts of information, it can be difficult to present it all on one screen without overwhelming the user. Progressive disclosure can be used to break down the information into smaller, more manageable chunks.

A common form of progressive disclosure can be seen as being used in a FAQ section on a website. Instead of showing the answers to all the questions by default, users can read through the list of questions and expand the answer for the question that is most relevant to them. This makes the content more scannable and allows the user to digest information easily.

Common Questions Cash App
Source: Cash App

Limited screen space

When dealing with user interfaces with limited space, it can be difficult to present all the necessary information without cluttering the screen. You can use progressive disclosure to present the most important information upfront while allowing the user to access additional information as needed. This can be especially useful on mobile screens.

Netflix’s mobile app uses progressive disclosure to manage the metadata of a show. On the main screen, it lists the first few cast members of the show. But to view more, users must click on “…more” to access the full list.

This is designed to highlight the most popular stars on the main screen without using up too much space. Furthermroe, users can select the name of a cast member to view related shows and movies.

Mobbin Examples
Source: Mobbin

Techniques for implementing progressive disclosure

There are a number of techniques that can be used to implement progressive disclosure. Here are some of the most common techniques:

Layering content

Layering content is one effective way to implement progressive disclosure in user interface design. Layering content involves presenting information in a hierarchy of layers, with the most important information presented first and less important information revealed as the user interacts with the interface.

Google Flights presents the most important information first, such as the flight times, duration, number of stops, and price. When the flight is expanded, additional information is revealed, such as specific airport and layover details.

Google Flights Example
Source: Google Flights

Before layering content, it’s important to prioritize the information you want to present to users. Identify the most important information that users need to see first, and then group related information into categories based on importance.

Using expandable and collapsible sections

Expandable and collapsible sections allow the user to access additional layers of information without leaving the current screen. These sections can be expanded or collapsed with a tap or a swipe. For example, clicking on a section header could reveal additional information related to that topic.

Kayak Flights Example
Source: Kayak

Use section headers that clearly describe the content or options that will be revealed when the section is expanded. This will help users quickly scan through the options and find the section that they want to expand.

Using hover and click actions

Hover and click actions allow users to interact with the interface and access additional information or options as needed.

An example of a hover action used for progressive disclosure can be seen in Google Docs. With the File menu open, users can browse through the list to select an option. Hovering over an option that has more options, as indicated with a right chevron, will invoke a secondary menu. The Email option brings up a submenu of additional options, including Email this file, Email collaborators, and Email draft.

Google Docs Example
Source: Google Docs

Best practices for using progressive disclosure

While progressive disclosure can be an effective technique for presenting complex content and large amounts of information, there are some best practices to keep in mind. Here are some tips for using progressive disclosure effectively:

Prioritize the most important information

When implementing progressive disclosure, it’s important to prioritize the most important information. Designers should consider what the user is trying to accomplish and what information they need to achieve their goals. This can help guide the design process and ensure that the most important information is presented in a way that is relevant and useful to the user.

Information that is related should be grouped together so that users can easily find what they’re looking for. This can be done by using headings, subheadings, and visual cues. Highlight important information using visual cues such as bold or larger text, colors, or icons.

Maintain consistency throughout the user experience

When implementing progressive disclosure, it’s important to maintain consistency throughout the user experience. This means using the same techniques and patterns throughout the interface, and ensuring that the user knows what to expect when accessing additional information.

A good way to maintain consistency is by using design systems. A design system is a collection of reusable components, guidelines, and best practices that help ensure consistency across an interface. By following the same guidelines for handling complex content within your product, your users will become familiar with the patterns and start to learn how content is hidden and revealed.

It can also be helpful to conduct a competitive analysis to understand how industry products currently work. This involves analyzing the interfaces of similar products to see how they implement progressive disclosure. By doing so, designers can learn from the successes and failures of other products and create an interface that is both familiar and effective to users.

Conduct user testing and gather feedback

As with any design technique, it’s important to conduct user testing and gather feedback when implementing progressive disclosure. This can help identify areas where the technique is working well, as well as areas where it may be causing confusion or frustration.

User testing can also reveal inconsistencies or confusing design elements that may need to be addressed. By incorporating user feedback and testing throughout the design process, designers can ensure that their interface is not only consistent but also meets the needs of their users.


In conclusion, progressive disclosure is a design technique that involves revealing information gradually, based on the user’s needs. It can be used in a variety of contexts, including complex content, large amounts of information, and user interfaces with limited space.

To implement progressive disclosure, designers can use techniques such as layering content, using expandable and collapsible sections, and incorporating hover and click actions. They should prioritize the most important information, maintain consistency throughout the user experience, and understand the user’s goals.

By using progressive disclosure effectively, designers can create interfaces that are both user-friendly and informative, providing users with the information they need in a way that is easy to understand and navigate. Whether you’re designing a website, app, or other digital product, incorporating progressive disclosure can help make your interface more effective and engaging for your users.

Header image source: IconScout

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Eric Chung UX designer focused on creating meaningful user value and business impact for B2B products. I also write about design.

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