Discoverability, much like how the word sounds, is the potential of something to be discovered. In digital interfaces, discoverability defines the ease at which users can find new content or features within a product. In many cases, good discoverability is critical because the ability for users to locate something they need will directly affect their ability to complete a specific task.
In this article, we will discuss the concept of discoverability, why it’s important, and share tips on how to design for good discoverability.
Why is it so hard to design for discoverability?
The terms findability and discoverability in UX are often used interchangeably. While related, they are not the same thing. The key difference is in how users think about content. Findability is the ability to find content or a functionality that users already know or assume is present in a product. Discoverability, on the other hand, is the ability to encounter new content or a functionality that users are not aware of previously.
This distinction makes it easier to see why it’s so difficult to design highly discoverable interfaces. In many cases, users don’t intentionally look for new stuff. People simply use a product, and, if they don’t encounter new features or content, they won’t even think to look for them, having no idea they exist as part of a product in the first place. Focusing on discoverability is an avenue for UX designers to address this problem and makes it easier for users to encounter those new-to-them items.
12 tips for improving discoverability in UX
Many factors impact the discoverability of a user interface. The following is a list of 12 tips that can be applied to almost any product that aims to improve its UX discoverability.
Tip 1: Design familiar interfaces
Many designers love to experiment and try new approaches. But in an attempt to create something new, they often rethink existing approaches and, unfortunately, make it harder for a user to understand the page.
It’s a designer’s responsibility to create interfaces that closely follow with universally accepted standards. You score extra discoverability points by using existing design conventions (e.g., metaphor or paradigm of OS design) and meeting users where they’re at in terms of understanding a web page. It’s easy for users to understand how something works when they can rely on their existing experience. For example, many websites position the navigation menu at the top of the page, next to the logo of the website—right where most users expect to find it.
Tip 2: Prioritize valuable content and features
When we hide something in the UI, we increase the risk that users won’t find it. There’s a reason mobile apps and websites are moving away from hamburger menus and using tab bars instead: discoverability in UX. Sure, hamburger menus save screen space by hiding navigation options, but, as we know, “out of sight, out of mind.” Hidden options make it more likely users will forget they have them.
Good visibility can lead to good discoverability—the more visible an element is, the more likely users will know about it. Visible navigation, like a tab bar, tells users their options and keeps those options top of mind.
Tip 3: Group content and functional elements in a logical order
Items that have strong relationships should be organized together into logical groups. This rule works both for content (e.g., information architecture that defines product categories on ecommerce websites) and features (e.g., groups of filters on Instagram). By introducing a logical order in a structure, you make it easier and faster for users to find what they want. (On a related note, it’s crucial to conduct tree testing to understand users’ mental models before even starting to work on UI. This knowledge will help you structure content according to user needs.)
Tip 4: Reduce visual clutter
One of the myths of UI design is that it’s possible to make everything equally easy to discover. It’s easy to assume that, in order to make an object more discoverable, it should be visible at all times. Following this approach, designers put all available objects and content on the screen/page. But in reality, making all objects prominently visible can clutter a page to the point of unreadability.
Visual clutter is most often unnecessary functional and decorative elements that prevent users from interacting with the product. This clutter not only slows the user down, but it also makes it harder to discover essential features.
Even when a page/screen has a good visual hierarchy, people have limited attention spans, and human brains have limited abilities to perceive things through the eyes. So, it’s always important to prioritize objects and choose which things are worth more attention than others. By removing all unnecessary elements from the layout, you add visual weight to the elements that remain and allow the genuinely important content and features to stand out.
Tip 5: Reduce the total number of options
Hick’s Law states that the more decisions a user has, the longer the decision-making process takes. Thus, it’s critical to strike a proper balance between giving your users a lot of options and restricting their choices to only the essentials. By offering a limited number of options to a user at any point in time, you simplify the decision-making process and give them the space (and confidence) to discover, explore, and try all available options.
Tip 6: Provide visual feedback
Visual feedback refers to the visible response that users get from performing any interaction. For example, when we hover a mouse on the link on a website, we see a visual response—the link changes its color. This small visual change is significant because it enhances the user’s overall experience and eliminates uncertainty. Users understand that certain elements are interactive and know what to do next, making them more likely to take that desired action.
Tip 7: Use icons with universal meaning
Using unfamiliar icons for interactive elements is a common cause of navigation problems. When users see an unknown icon, they can’t predict what will happen when they tap it. This guesswork has a high cost for your product team, because, in many cases, users skip the option altogether.
How do you know if an icon is confusing? Test it. Ask real or potential users what the element in question does. If they can’t give you a clear answer, replace the icon with a more meaningful alternative (either another icon or a clear label).
Tip 8: Use animation to direct user attention
The human eye naturally focuses on moving objects. Subtle animated effects can guide users toward certain content or features. Animation can also explain how to interact with objects.
Tip 9: Be careful with gestures
Gestures are hidden controls, and they can cause a lot of discoverability issues. Unless users know that certain gestures exist, they won’t try them. Try to use universally accepted gestures for your product category, and never try to reinvent the wheel by introducing new and unfamiliar patterns. Considering the fact that gestures are still a relatively new concept for many users, it’s worth highlighting the gesture-based interactions during onboarding.
Tip 10: Size UI elements appropriately
There is a reason why designers use different visual styling for headlines and regular text—we want to make it easier for users to scan the text. The same strategy applies to UI design. By making certain elements larger than others, we direct the user’s attention to key information. For example, a large call-to-action button on the landing page clearly tells users what the next action should be and what to expect to happen when they tap the button. Large targets are likely to be located first and found again. (Large UI elements are also beneficial in terms of usability because they are easier to tap on mobile devices.)
Tip 11: Provide visual affordances
Even if users discover an object, they might not know how to use it. An affordance is an attribute that indicates how an element is used. Without affordances, users are left to guess how to use an object (and likely leave it untouched). In digital interfaces, designers should select an object’s shape based on what that shape will tell users about how to interact with it. For example, when we see a rectangular object with a label “Submit,” we know that this is a button.
Tip 12: Provide visual cues
Visual cues are UI elements that guide users toward a particular piece of content or functionality. A typical example of a visual cue is an animated arrow on long-scroll websites that guide users in a specific direction.
If the user can’t find something, it doesn’t exist for them. Discoverability can help them find it. As designers, we should strive to create intuitive interfaces and experiences. By making our interfaces more discoverable, we increase the chances that users will encounter and use our content and features.