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What is signal-to-noise ratio in UX, and why does it matter?

Last updated

27 March 2023


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The term signal-to-noise ratio usually relates to audio products and sound quality. However, it also has a place in user experience design and the amount of information your audience consumes. Your website's signal-to-noise ratio determines how easily users find information relevant to their needs.

When users can't find the information they seek quickly, they're likely to click away and search the more efficient websites of your competitors.

Learning about signal-to-noise ratio and how to decrease the noise that distracts your customers is essential to provide a website that leads potential customers to relevant information. 

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What is signal-to-noise ratio?

Signal-to-noise ratio (also referred to as S/N or SNR) represents the balance of relevant information to useless data. 

Signal is the information users want, while noise is any information distracting from the signal.

Let’s return to the earlier audio example. The signal represents the sound (like music or conversation) users expect to hear, while noise represents anything that makes the signal more difficult to hear (like background noise or static). 

When the noise ratio is higher than the signal, users can't hear the sound they're trying to listen to. 

In user interface design, the signal is the information a user seeks, while noise can be text, visual elements, animation, etc. To make matters complex, different users seek different signals. Furthermore, a user may be seeking more than one signal.

For instance, a user may seek their Order History on the home page, then search for navigation information to find a different page on the same site. 

In other words, a signal is based directly on a user's goal. If your website has a low signal-to-noise ratio, your users won't necessarily find what they're looking for, and they will typically stop interacting with your site or app, increasing your bounce rate.

A high signal-to-noise ratio is important in user interface design because it predicts that users will find the essential information they seek from your site or app. 

Increasing the signal-to-noise ratio

According to a 2021 Pew Research survey, 85% of 1,502 U.S. adult respondents went online daily.

While these rates may seem encouraging for e-commerce businesses, it’s also been found that 50% of users bounce after seeing just one website page.

The top three reasons for a high bounce rate are:

  • Visitors didn't find what they were looking for

  • The on-site experience was confusing, and visitors didn't know what to do next

  • On-page content didn't address the user's needs 

Unless a business is misrepresenting their content in the search engine result page snippets, these prospects could have been converted.

You can achieve a high signal-to-noise ratio in UX by carefully prioritizing content, creating an efficient visual hierarchy, and understanding the importance of dynamic noise. 

Prioritizing content

Large amounts of content become noise if users can't quickly identify what they're looking for. 

Consider a printed page with one font type and no paragraph breaks. It would be virtually impossible for any reader to find a specific sentence, word, or idea quickly. 

Providing many options and information at once might create unnecessary cognitive load for the user. Think about Hick's law, aka the paradox of choice, which states that the more choices we’re given, the more time we need to make a decision. 

Before creating content for a page or revising an existing page, consider, therefore, the needs of your visitors. Determine what you absolutely need them to know, and prioritize whatever that is. 

Consider revealing information and features in progressive steps rather than all at once. You can achieve this through snippets of information, accordion elements, drop-down menus, sliders, hamburger menus, or lazy loading.

Placing the most important content near the top makes navigating any page easier. It can also help to add bold keywords, but be careful to use this tactic sparingly. Otherwise, bold fonts will only add to potential noise.

Visual hierarchy

Your page's visual hierarchy describes how visuals are laid out to grab the user's attention. An overly noisy page might have a lot of bright colors and moving parts that fight for recognition.

Conversely, a page with a good SNR and well-designed visual hierarchy will have moderate amounts of color, a layout structure with similar items grouped together, aligned UI elements, and a significant amount of white space. 

A clear format is more likely to enable the user to find the information they’re looking for. 

Revealing information in progressive steps, rather than all at once, is also crucial. 

When creating a visual hierarchy to increase your signal-to-noise ratio, the goal is to create a high visual impact on whatever is most relevant. You can establish a hierarchy by making certain fonts large, bold, or colorful.

You can also draw the eye to specific points on the page by adding easily identifiable icons or increasing the size of CTA buttons. Anything that makes important elements stand out gives them a visual weight and makes them more noticeable. 

Dynamic noise

As mentioned earlier, users aren't always seeking the same signals. Though a website's interactivity makes it engaging, anything that the user isn’t clicking on is noise, up until the moment it becomes necessary to their journey.

For instance, menu options or navigation signals represent noise right until the user seeks them out. Dynamic noise represents the visuals necessary to make your website user-friendly, but to avoid confusion, they must remain in the background instead of front and center. 

Consider how the navigation on a website suddenly becomes a signal when a user wants to move to another page. 

When navigation is displayed in the same convenient way on every site page, the user can immediately gravitate toward it and use it when needed. Yet, it conveniently fades into the background when out of use. 

When dynamic noise is easily ignorable, it doesn't interfere with the signal of the user interface. Therefore, it enhances user-friendliness while improving your signal-to-noise ratio. 

Declutter for the best SNR

Just like audio static creates noise that makes it impossible to listen to your favorite song, information on a cluttered digital page becomes a distraction that makes it impossible for users to take action.

Interfaces with high signal-to-noise ratios improve communication with users and make tasks easier. It’s possible to significantly enhance your signal-to-noise ratio by prioritizing useful content, enhancing visual hierarchy, and properly displaying dynamic noise.

Ultimately, by showcasing mainly the information your users seek and revealing it progressively, you can deliver an excellent user experience, reduce your bounce rate, and increase conversions.


Is high or low SNR good?

SNR is signal strength compared to noise. A high signal-to-noise ratio simplifies the interface by removing unnecessary content to clarify the signal. As such, a high signal-to-noise ratio is good. 

However, if you omit everything that isn't overtly helpful for the user, your website may not be visually appealing or well-branded. So, it's essential to find a balance.

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