Progressive disclosure: valid or sneaky?

game of pass the parcel
pass the parcel: picture by Jenni Lloyd, creative commons licence

Gianpiero (@gpiero on Twitter) asked: “What do you feel about progressive disclosure in forms? Valid or sneaky (considering you’re probably hiding a lot of fields)?”

I’m a huge fan of progressive disclosure, provided it’s used in an honest way.

Let me explain by talking about relationship and conversation.

Relationship: because you’re clearly already, and correctly, thinking about how your form will create or undermine trust between your organisation and the people filling in the  form. Yes, you can use progressive disclosure sneakily. Lure people into the form with a simple question, then as they gradually commit more time and effort to answering you can lure them into feeling that they’ve put in so much already that they may as well continue.

But you can also use progressive disclosure in an entirely valid way, to hide complications from people who don’t need to know about them yet – or maybe, ever. In my specialist area of government forms there are always 80/20 rules; 80% of the people filing in the form will only need to know about 20% of the possibilities.

Which brings me to conversation: the sequence of words, questions, and flow through the form. Finding the appropriate balance between being honest with people but without overwhelming them, that isn’t easy. It takes careful attention to your content design, and lots and lots of iterations of usability testing and improvements.