Progressive Reduction, Progressive Disclosure and Legal Disclosures – Incompatible?

Progressive Disclosure and Progressive Reduction are two common user experience (UX) techniques in website and application design.  Both reduce the amount of information provided by default to a user, which can be very useful when you have a small amount of screen real estate available on a website or in an application or striving for a clean user interface.  Both are designed to favor selective content disclosure over mouse clicks (it takes more clicks to view all of the information, but many people may not need to see the additional information and therefore won’t need the clicks).

Progressive Disclosure stack ranks information, features and options by usage, and breaks the display of the information, features and options onto multiple screens so that only the most commonly used or popular items appear by default.  The intent of Progressive Disclosure is to simplify the user interface and avoid overwhelming a user with information, features and options on a single screen (which results in a bad user experience).  Common examples of Progressive Disclosure in apps and on websites are “Learn More” links and expandable/collapsible data elements that are collapsed by default but expandable by the user. An example of Progressive Disclosure in the legal context is a “layered” privacy policy with an initial summary and links to the longer, full privacy policy.

Progressive Reduction uses user profiles and other information or options to progressively reduce content elements based on time or usage.  As the user becomes more familiar with the website or app (or as more time passes), the design can be simplified and reduced, as the assumption is that the user will still understand what to do.  For example, suppose a website has a prominent “Change Your Preferences” button with an icon.  As a user becomes more familiar with that button, it can be reduced to a “Preferences” button with an icon, and then just the icon.  Another example is expandable/collapsible data elements that are expanded by default, where if the user collapses them the website or application will remember the user’s preference and collapse them by default thereafter.

The Federal Trade Commission and state Attorneys General expect websites and apps to have “clear and conspicuous” and “legible and understandable” legal disclosures to avoid deceptive trade practice claims.  Requiring a click to access important disclosures is neither clear nor conspicuous to a user.  Thus, the concepts of Progressive Disclosure and Progressive Reduction seem to conflict with proper legal disclosures.  So can they coexist?  The answer is yes, but not for (1) the critical elements of the initial disclosure, and (2) information you are legally obligated to present to the user.

An initial website legal disclosure (e.g., special terms regarding a product, automatic renewal terms, etc.) must be clear, conspicuous, legible and understandable, as the FTC and state AGs expect. Progressive Disclosure and Progressive Reduction should not be used for the initial disclosure, and should never be used to break apart a legal agreement such as click-through terms. (If space is a concern, an attorney should try to make the disclosure as concise as possible, or use a scroll box with a greyed-out checkbox for consent or greyed-out “continue” button until the consumer scrolls to the bottom of the scroll box.)  For legal policies posted on a website, using a layered approach is a common way to apply principles of Progressive Disclosure.

In some cases, there are supplemental references to or confirmations of the initial disclosure, such as in an order confirmation email, or online notices of a policy change previously communicated by email or postal mail.  The supplemental references to, or confirmations of, a website legal disclosure are generally used to remind the consumer what they have agreed to, which can help defend against a claim that the disclosure was not clearly or conspicuously provided.  In some circumstances, such as with auto-renewing subscriptions in California, the full initial disclosure must be provided in the supplemental disclosure.  However, where there is no legal requirement to do so, Progressive Disclosure can be applied to the supplemental disclosure as long as the terms initially displayed are the ones for which the consumer would most expect to be reminded, i.e., the most critical terms.

A strong partnership with the User Experience team is critical to ensuring that legal disclosures are properly presented in websites and apps.  Demonstrating an understanding of UX concepts, and how to strike the right balance with legal disclosure requirements, strengthens their view of counsel as a valued business partner and problem solver.

1 thought on “Progressive Reduction, Progressive Disclosure and Legal Disclosures – Incompatible?

  1. Eric
    Excellent post. Great to see a message like this coming from the legal department and not just user experience advocates. Your note really reflects a deep understanding of how to best use the tool to effectively communicate and stay true to the letter and spirit of the law.

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