Hide ‘n Seek: What to do with empty data fields?

We’ve been working on a fundamental website redesign for a hefty biological database.

One design dilemma has been what to do with empty data fields. For example, on a Gene Summary we might have a “Variation” field listing variations found in the gene. Obviously, not all genes have variations.

Displaying field labels with empty contents clearly delineates the limits of our knowledge or curation, but at the same time leads to more visually confusing pages.

Current options we’re considering are:

1. Omit the field entirely.

Known unknowns (apologies to D. Rumsfeld), if you don’t know what you might know, you don’t know how much you do know. Or something like that.

2. Display the field label, but with empty contents.


3. Display the field label with a string:

Variations: no data available

This offers the same advantage as above, namely that gaps in our knowledge or curation are clearly indicated. But sparse entries become visually thick very fast.

We’re currently experimenting with other design patterns for handling this situation, too, including using color to de-emphasize empty fields or allowing users to turn off their display as a configuration option.

What do you prefer? Would you rather see all available data fields on a report page even if they’re empty? Or are you a minimalist and prefer that empty field be hidden?


  1. says


    A while back, we at Gramene redesigned our interfaces, and it was my own prejudice that led us to display every field for every object so that the views would be consistent and would show where data was missing. We use expandable tabs to group data into a view that will show an overview without scrolling the browser. Sections that are incomplete are greyed out and cannot be expanded, e.g.:


    I’m not thrilled with all the heavy lines and boxes-in-boxes look we have, but I like the principles of keeping everything consistent and using colors to de-emphasize missing data.

  2. says

    Good tips, Ken. I think in an ideal world users should be able to choose which view they like: compact and clear, or full and sparse. Although maybe if it was an ideal world we’d just have all the data and it would pre-formatted and ready to go 🙂

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