Beneficial Disorder in Interface Designs

by Luke Wroblewski July 27, 2008

I’m in the midst of A Perfect Mess by Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman. In their book, the authors spend a good amount of time illuminating the role of beneficial disorder (a system is messy if its elements are scattered, mixed up, or varied due to some amount of randomness) in technology, offices, and homes.

They point out investing in neatness and organization is often costly yet rarely provides the benefits people seek.

“Rather, we argue that there is an optimal level of mess for every aspect of every system. That is, in any situation there is a type and level of mess at which effectiveness is maximized, and our assertion is that people and organizations frequently err on the side of over-organization. Most people simply assume they’re on the overly messy and disorganized side of the line and would do well to drag themselves in the direction of neatness and order.”

To me, this sounds like a common malady of interface designers and information architects. We often strive for buttoned-up organization in our application and system designs -perhaps at the cost of being able to maximize efficiency by tolerating some disorder in our designs.