Effective use of space in interaction design requires an understanding of aesthetics, functionality and human behavior. In fact, spatial design is the link between the more stylistic dimensions of language and visuals – and the more practical ones of responsiveness, time and user behavior. Space exists somewhere in the middle, dealing with issues on both sides of the spectrum.
We’ll start our discussion on space by talking about it in its purest form — white space — and why you shouldn’t fear it. Then we’ll get into more practical tips on how to treat space in interaction design so that your interface doesn’t feel cluttered or isolated.
Don’t fear blank space!
White space can be daunting. White space can feel like an empty canvas — something that you must replace with your brilliance, otherwise you’re not doing your job. But the truth is something completely different: the designer’s job is to create the best interface and experience possible, and that means using white space as just another design tool.
Source: White Space Is Not Wasted Space
All good visual artists understand the importance of negative space, the empty area that draws attention to, and accents, the actual subject. Negative space (the artistic equivalent of a designer’s white space) is like the supporting cast whose duty is to make the star of the show stand out more by not standing out so much themselves.
If you don’t think any part of your design should be intentionally blank, take a look at the World’s Worst Website Ever for an extreme example of the damage caused by too many objects competing for attention.
In interaction design, white space serves 3 main functions:
1. Improving comprehension
If cluttering your interface overloads your user with too much information, then reducing the clutter will improve comprehension. In fact, properly using white space between paragraphs and in the left and right margins has been proven to increase comprehension up to 20%, as pointed out by Dmitry Fadeyev, creator of Usaura.
The skill of using white space lies in providing your users with a digestible amount of content, then stripping away extraneous details. White space can be broken down into 4 elements:
- Visual white space: Space surrounding graphics, icons, and images
- Layout white space: Margins, paddings, and gutters
- Text white space: Spacing between lines and spacing between letters
- Content white space: Space separating columns of text
Let’s take a look at how these 4 elements create a sense of harmony and fluidity.
Medium is a great example of striking a nice balance with all four elements of white space. First, let’s think about the goal of the user from an interaction standpoint: they want to access interesting content as quickly as possible. The homepage immediately facilitates that goal by placing content front and center, with plenty of white space on either side to add emphasis. There is ample space around visuals and between lines of copy.
Beyond improving comprehension, white space also helps create mental maps. Minimal white space is used between the top navigation and content stream since both serve similar functions in driving the user deeper into content (and similar functions should be grouped together).
Because the right-side navigation focuses more on creating and saving content, more white space separates it from the content stream. In this case, white space helps users assign different functionalities to different parts of the interface.
Once you click through to an article, white space helps focus the user on what they care about most: the content. Notice how the extra spacing between each line of text improves readability.
Just like the homepage, you can see that plenty of white space once again creates distance between groups of objects that serve different functions.
Ultimately, proper use of white space eliminates waste in your interface. Each interaction with the user, therefore, feels necessary in helping them accomplish their goal. Think of it as what we describe as “subtractive sculpture”. As you remove more stone, you create more space and emphasis for your sculpture.
2. Clarifying relationships
When observing how individuals organize visual information, Gestalt psychologists stumbled on what they call the Law of Proximity, which states that images near to each other appear similar. For example, take a look at the below picture:
Almost everyone sees 2 groups of dots, rather than simply 20 dots. The dots are all identical and the only thing differentiating them is the white space that separates them. This behavioral observation has several important applications to interaction design, especially with regards to input forms.
3. Place labels closest to the relevant fields
As you can see in the below example, information is communicated far more clearly when labels are placed closer to the fields they relate to.
Research has shown that even the slightest hesitation can hurt form completion. In this case, merely adjusting the spacing increases the user’s confidence in filling out the form, which of course improves completion rate.
4. Group related topics together
When dealing with long forms, the task of filling them out can seem so overwhelming, some users will quit before even trying. Breaking the information up into appropriate groups can help make it feel more manageable.
Just categorizing the 15 fields into 3 groups makes the process feel easier. The amount of content is the same, but the impression on users is much different.
Form fields usually present the most friction to users, but the same principles can also apply to navigation and site content. Instead of a top navigation menu with 20 items, you can create a dropdown menu with 4-7 top-level items and the rest categorized under submenus.
5. Attracting attention
As we’ve mentioned before, the lack of other elements will only make existing elements stand out more. Let’s take a look at our redesign of Yelp below:
In the above high-fidelity prototype, we added plenty of white space to separate the categories from the search function. In doing so, the category icons are much more noticeable (and less cluttered) than their current vertical format. Combined with an animation-like color fill that’s triggered on hover, the category section now attracts even more attention, while providing better feedback to the user.
But because humans have a selective attention that leads to tunnel vision — like tuning out banner ads (known as banner blindness) — you also need to know when spacing between content should be reduced and altered.
Ultimately, you need to understand that the power of white space comes from the limits of human attention and memory.
Just look at the comparison between Yahoo and Google below. Yahoo tries to get the user to consider too many actions at once. Google understands the bottom line that people just want to use search engines to find stuff. By being realistic about the user goal, Google’s design encourages more effective interaction.
Understand the limits of human memory
Most designers subscribe to the “don’t make the user think” school of thought.
It’s not that users are just lazy, it’s that they already have a lot on their mind, and cramming extra information just makes it harder to complete their tasks. The amount of strain an interface design creates is called “cognitive load,” and a usable and enjoyable UI will reduce this as much as possible.
Over the years, designers have developed strategies for minimizing cognitive load without sacrificing features. We’ll explain how chunking content helps reduce cognitive strain, then look at four additional memory-saving tips.
1. Chunking Content
As complicated as the human brain is, its shortcomings are surprisingly predictable. Take the studies of George Miller, for example — in 1956, the scientist released his findings that our short-term memory can usually retain data of between 5-9 items — an average of 7 — before forgetfulness sinks in. While the exact number has been contested, Miller’s findings have proven effective and led to important IxD methods, including “chunking.”
Chunking is the practice of grouping relevant information together to make it easier to process and remember. In the above image, it’s easier to remember the first group of shapes because they’re chunked out.
Chunking is not a hard-and-fast rule, but one that depends upon the context. In brief, chunking is ideal for the following situations:
- When your product naturally has a great deal of information that must be memorized for later use.
- The UI must compete against external stimuli for your user’s attention, i.e. car navigation systems
- E-learning applications (since users must later recall the information)
On the other hand, you don’t need to chunk your content if it’s meant to be searched or browsed. There are exceptions, of course, as you can see below with Etsy.
While users don’t need to memorize the categories, chunking out the content on the category-level adds visual hierarchy. Once you click into the category, the chunking disappears and the items are listed. It wouldn’t make sense to apply chunking at the item-level since you can understand the frustration from browsing only 5-6 items per page.
Etsy’s treatment allows users enjoy the best of both worlds. A large amount of products are presented, but users don’t feel overstimulated. In the example above, there are 32 different products on the screen. Using any other design, the user could feel lost or distracted. Thanks to chunking, users can process all the information while honing in on the “chunks” that most interest them.
2. Additional memory-saving tips
Here are some best practices designers find helpful in easing the strain on their users’ memories:
- Change the color of links already visited
- Facilitate comparing product pages
- Use coupon links, not codes
- Long navigation menus are ok if needed
No one wants a product experience to feel like a calculus test. Reduce the cognitive load and the experience naturally improves.
Apply the Law of Context to alterable objects
Simply put, the Law of Context states that you must place controls next to the relevant interface object, just like a label goes next to the blank form field. This reduces cognitive load because as soon as users want to modify something, they can already see the actions available.
On Facebook, the user must traverse several different menus and pages, going from Settings to Account Settings to Name to Edit, a process that is not readily avilable and must be first searched in the Help section. On LinkedIn, however, all you do is click the pencil icon next to your profile name.
Which process is simpler? Which do users prefer?
By putting the controls next to the relevant item, the designer spares the user from the hassle of researching, memorizing and diving into complex user paths. This also relates to the point about making clicks easy because you want to minimize the path between the user and the goal. The simplification of the system allows basic common sense to triumph over lengthy and involved explanations.
Now, let’s take this principle a step further to create a hierarchy of control. As you can see below in a mockup of an online map service, controls that affect an object should be grouped with the object (like the zoom controls). Controls that affect a whole group of objects should be associated with the whole group (like the categories).
Let’s deconstruct the above image:
- Broadest level of control: Because changing the categories will affect the entire map image, the category interface wraps around all lower levels of control.
- Middle level of control: In this case, typing in the zip code or address is more specific than selecting a category. Since this affects where the map zooms, it’s placed right above the map (but inside the category interface).
- Precise level of control: The map zoom represents the most specific level of control. It sits inside the map image since that’s all it controls.
Of course, the above example is just one visual treatment. Make sure that your interface has a hierarchy that makes it easy to understand how each control may affect the others.
Space can either take away or add value to your content — it all depends on how you use it.
Create too much space between related interface objects and your design becomes frustrating. Cram too many objects together, and your design becomes too cluttered. Pay attention to space when creating your layouts, particularly in relationship to user memory and how proximity can convey meaning better than a wordy explanation. Space holds a lot of weight in interaction design — which is saying a lot for something that is technically nothing.
Jerry Cao is a UX content strategist at UXPin — the wireframing and prototyping app. For visual case studies of IxD from top companies like Google, Yahoo, AirBnB, and 30 others, download the free e-book Interaction Design Best Practices: Words, Visuals, Space.
Cover photo: Why You Need White Space — Again