Recently, while designing a portal for a client, I was part of a debate about whitespace versus information density in portal page designs.
I began my career designing instructional materials for Apple, where whitespace was an essential tool we used to create a clean, simple, accessible look. Since that experience, whitespace has been part of my DNA — I don’t surrender it lightly. I know that it is underused, that it is essential to helping users parse and scan content, and that it is at the core of any visual design that strives to be light, simple, and clean. I also appreciate the prominent role it plays in branding for a wide range of corporations. That said, we have learned that in portals, it can be overdone.
In a portal (as opposed to a public site or print materials), users come to the site with efficient information retrieval as their primary task. They do not want to browse or navigate or think about site structure. They want 80% (or more) of the information to be right there, on the surface, no clicking required. Portal user satisfaction is often driven directly by the ability to retrieve target information on the portal homepage. So while the layout needs to be open and clean enough to be scanned, there are higher user tolerances (even requirements) for greater information density on a portal page.
Furthermore, portal users will, within seconds of landing on a portal page — without clicking or scrolling at all — evaluate it based on how much useful information they see at a glance. If they perceive that they are on a page that is lightweight, overly branding or marketing-driven, or lacking sufficient useful information, it will impact the likelihood that they will become frequent users of the site.
Users have also developed expectations about portal designs. Based on their personal experiences with news portals, customizable portals (e.g., iGoogle, My Yahoo!), they have come to expect a certain information density. They may be critical of or question the relative value of sites that use lighter designs based on their learned expectations with other portals.
Having said that, talented visual designers can keep a light feeling in a design, minimize rigid portlet-segmentation, and vary the weight of different portlets to break up the “gray-blur” effect one might experience looking at info-packed portal screens. But it is useful to be aware of the fact that information density is a good thing for portals. And we don’t want to use a visual design that will reduce the perceived value or usefulness of such a site.