The Impact of Screen Clutter on the User Experience

Tobias Komischke / Monday, May 16, 2011

Most people would instinctively agree that cluttered screens – unorganized, overloaded and busy – are not desirable or a sign of great screen design. In the past couple of years, there have been a number of research papers providing deeper insights into why screen clutter is indeed detrimental on the user experience. They focus on two of the supporting pillars of user experience, namely aesthetics and human factors. The former relates to the perceived visual quality of a user experience, the latter to the load the presentation of the interactive product has on the user’s cognition.


From an aesthetics standpoint, researchers have shown that people have a need for structure on a user interface, especially bilateral symmetry. Randomly placed items or items that don’t align with clear symmetry axes on the screen are not considered pleasing. Also, the more elements are shown on a screen, the less aesthetic the screen is rated.

Bauerly, M.P., Liu, Y. (2006). Computational modeling and experimental investigation of effects of compositional elements on interfaces and design aesthetics. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 64, 2006. pp. 670-682.

Palmer, S., Gardner, J.S., Wickens, T.D. (2008). Aesthetic issues in spatial composition: effects of position and direction on framing single objects. Spatial Vision, Vol. 21, No. 3–5, pp. 421– 449.


With regards to human factors, just a couple of weeks ago researchers at Princeton University, which is 20 minutes away from Infragistics headquarters, published an article reporting on findings from fMRI studies (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). They analyzed the brains of people while they were exposed to visual scenes of clutter. They conclude that visual clutter (in the real world, on photos, on computer screens) limits the brain’s ability to process information and restricts the ability of persons to focus (I had email communication with one of the authors to confirm that interpretation of their paper).

McMains, S., Kastner, S. (2011). Interactions of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in human visual cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience, 31(2), pp. 587-597.


Research connecting the findings from aesthetics and human factors indicates that people find things visually attractive when these things can be easily processed by the brain (based on symmetry, cleanliness and proportions). Also, people rate the legibility of dark text on light background higher than the inverse combination. At the same time, they also rate the pleasantness of that text-to-background combination higher.    

Winkielman, P. , Halberstadt, J., Fazendeiro, T., Catty, S. (2006). Prototypes Are Attractive Because They Are Easy on the Mind. Psychological Science. Pp. 799-806.

Greco, M., Stucchi, N., Zavagno, D., Marino, B. (2008). On the Portability of Computer-Generated Presentations: The Effect of Text-Background Color Combinations on Text Legibility. Human Factors, 50(5). Pp. 821-833.


These are very strong arguments to clean up those screens, don’t you think? Use best practices like grid layouts, responsive disclosure, etc. to make it happen!