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Opinion: Information Density Isn't As Important As Information Hierarchy

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Opinion: Information Density Isn't As Important As Information Hierarchy

Liam Spradlin

Google's new approach to design - focused on what material an interface is made of - is a hot topic, both in the design community and among end users.

One of the major points of contention with the new design approach is information density, a hot word that is used specifically as a reaction to things like the new Google Play Store designs. Some users question the new visually-focused designs, which put pretty images of content at the forefront, and introduce a significant amount of white space that couldn't be found previously.

Essentially, the assertion is that the new design has a distinctly low information density. Where ten pieces of information were present, there now seem to be five. Areas once richly populated with words and information are now empty or filled by feature visuals.

It's this writer's opinion that this is a good thing (and, tangentially, that this is partially due to the fact that the canvas color for the revised listings is white, not gray). It's also my opinion that information density is a highly misunderstood element of design.

What's more important than how much info you can pack "above the fold" (in this case the screen you see without interaction), is the hierarchy of information, or the order in which it is revealed to the user.

Having the essential information above the fold is important. But not all information is essential. Developers and designers must distill information down, deciding exactly what MUST be instantly visible, and what can be saved for later areas of the layout.

This is particularly true in interface design for mobile. The devices we use are comprised exclusively of a touch screen. They are meant to be touched. So interacting to find more fine-grained information is only natural.

When deciding how much essential info should live above the fold, consider this - there is a certain threshold beyond which users cannot possibly parse every piece of information on the screen faster than they could interact with the screen to find more. What information is the most relevant to users off the bat? Choosing information requires a balance between what users will expect and what information you want to emphasize.

Also consider the inverted pyramid. The inverted pyramid is a concept from journalism, under which the most important and relevant facts to a story are described at the beginning of the story, with more fine-grained information following. Organizing your information in this way across interfaces (and really across any communication) makes for a more comfortable and sensible experience.

It's also important to consider layout - even if you've distilled the absolute essentials, they must be thoughtfully organized or the parsing speed will decrease, and the effect of the hierarchy will be lost.

In the example above, the information on the game listing could probably pass for the essentials, but the list of game features is organized in a somewhat off-putting manner. This information is crystallized as icons in the new version, and given less importance. After all, what's important is that the game has Play Games features, not specifically what those features are.

Google also wants to emphasize the relative popularity of the game, using its download tally as a header title for a list of friends who have interacted with the game. Previously the social aspect is relegated to a simple +1 button and a name.

Comparing the densities of the two interfaces is looking at the design from the wrong perspective - more information packed onto an initial view is almost never better than thoughtfully organized essentials.