Create Hierarchy

Fundamentals of interface design

Hierarchy communicates the relative importance of elements on the page.

If everything is a priority then nothing is a priority.

Without hierarchy, each element commands the same amount of attention, which means a user has to read everything from top to bottom to get the whole picture.

When hierarchy is established the number of things a user has to take in at once is reduced.

The goal of hierarchy is to guide a user’s attention in a sequence that makes it:

  • Easier to absorb and comprehend the UI
  • Faster to discover relevant information and actions. Usually this means guiding attention from the general to the specific.

There are two ways to create hierarchy:

Adjust Visual Prominence To Draw Attention

Create visual hierarchy by making one element more (or less) visually prominent than other elements.

Visual prominence increases with contrast

Contrast is function of surface area (i.e. how much space an element takes up) and the difference in lightness between a foreground and background color.

To make text more prominent, for example, increase font size and/or font weight (i.e. its surface area), and make it darker if it’s on a light background.

To emphasize an entire area of the UI, apply a different background color, add a border, and/or use shadow to increase its contrast and give the appearance of elevation.

Headings should be more prominent than paragraph text, and primary actions should be more prominent than secondary or tertiary ones.

Arrange Elements So Important Content Is Seen First

Structural hierarchy (document hierarchy for web pages) refers to the order of elements on a page, and the nesting of child elements within parent elements.

Show information that communicates the location and purpose of the UI — “Where am I? What is this?” — first. It sounds obvious but this is why page titles and navigation breadcrumbs go at the top of a page.

Nest elements to enable “drilling down” into content. This allows a user to progressively view information with increasing specificity, as they need it, rather than having to view everything up front and all at once.

One way to nest elements is to use expandable and collapsable sections to show and hide information. Another way is to organize content into first-level and second-level pages.

This is post is part of a series on the fundamentals of interface design.

The series summarizes technical knowledge and best practices that make it easier for humans to interact with software on screens.

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