Density is a principle of user experience that is both dynamic and critical. Designers often use terms like “busy” or “crowded” to describe websites that have simply too much information, too many pictures, an overload of icons, or all of the above. Density, however, might be a more thorough term because density can be quantified, but “crowded” cannot. Density could be quantified by determining how many elements or nodes are on a given page. It could also be determined by looking at the depth of the code. Indicators of density could include loading time. How “heavy” is the page? The point, however, is not that the more dense a page, the worse off the experience is for the user. It should be noted that density can have a wide range of impact on user experience. No elements of web design should be made without consideration. Density is simply another element to consider.
The picture above shows Kowloon’s famed Walled City. The Walled City once had the highest population density in the world. Its density has never been matched since its demolition in the late 1980s. The area was an enclave in Hong Kong. It housed so many people per square mile/kilometer that it is nearly impossible to wrap your mind around the population density.
The 99% Invisible Podcast describes the density as equal to every man, woman, and child in Texas moving to Manhattan!
The Walled City’s famed density spawned sanitation issues, crime problems, and nearly unlivable conditions. That said, those who once lived in the Walled City often have a bit of nostalgia for the place. They cite the close-knit community groups, the availability of goods in close proximity (something not always easy to find in big cities), and a type of culture that emerged in the city and can’t be recreated.
To me, even imagining living in Kowloon’s Walled City makes me claustrophobic. It’s hard to consider living in a place where sunlight and fresh air were nearly non-existent. There are people, however, that, for lack of a better term, love living in places that are compact and filled with people. I like cities, but not to an extreme. I wouldn’t be a great New Yorker, or enjoy living in Tokyo or Mexico City. Others, however, couldn’t imagine living in the countryside or the suburbs.
Usability experts preach simplicity and that often means removal of many parts of a web design, the elimination of long texts, and the creating websites with fast loading times. I think, however, there is a place for density in web design. It is hard to find a usability expert who would oppose the “less is more” ideal.
If web is an extension of life, then it stands to reason that density could be best for some users and some websites. Maybe “more is more”! The Million Dollar Website is a great example. Here is a screen shot I took today:
To me, it’s disorganized and cluttered. It hurts me to look at this site. There is, however, a segment of the population that doesn’t want to see overly-polished, stripped-down websites. They want disorder, randomness, complexity, and crowded space! Perhaps simplicity doesn’t mirror our lives outside the web, and for that reason it might be important to consider building web sites with more dense designs. For some, simplicity may be anathema to usability. These are the users who would have enjoyed living in Kowloon’s Walled City.