Problem: How should the items or actions be organized?
Resulting Context: To make a visual grouping of things look good, it's tempting to shortchange their individual usability. Try not to make too many sacrifices here. For instance, a common mistake made by Form designers is to make a text box too short for the expected input, simply to make it visually fit in with the Small Group of Related Things (e.g. other text boxes) that it belongs to. Also, there's no need to be dogmatic about this pattern -- expert users of a WYSIWYG Editor, for instance, may prefer that their Toolbox just show all the available tools as densely packed as possible, to save space.
Sometimes a large group of homogeneous items work together to form a
single conceptual entity. This is true about many High-density
Information Displays -- data points on a scatter chart, for instance,
or a column of numbers representing a single variable. This pattern shouldn't
apply to them. See Edward Tufte's book Envisioning Information,
in particular the chapter on "Small Multiples," for an excellent set of
counterexamples: these large sets of items are meant to show small
changes between individual items that share most characteristics, to make
those changes stand out. The impact comes from seeing all those similar
items next to each other. In many cases, that impact would be completely
lost if you broke up those sets of items into small groups!
Notes: This is a very basic way of managing complexity, and is almost more of a principle than a pattern. The "ten or fewer" comes from Miller's number (7+-2), which represents, among other things, the upper limit of someone's ability to "instantly" scan a set of items. Beyond that, the time it takes to read through the items grows linearly.
Copyright (c) 1999 by Jenifer Tidwell. All rights reserved.