Stop worrying and embrace the long scroll

August 27, 2014

You have a story you'd like to tell. You organize and start writing as you usually do: create an outline, group related points together, add detail, source your material. After some editing and polish you have a nice looking piece.

Naturally your next question to your web design team is, how do I best convey this message to my customers online? This time, to your surprise, they recommend putting the entire thing on one page.

You, like all good clients, trust your designers. But you can't help wondering, will this actually work? Won't there be too much information on one page? How will my customers know to scroll down to see what I need to show them? Here's why a long scrolling page might work for the story that you want to tell.

Scrolling is universally familiar

There have been studies in recent years that tells us people aren't afraid to scroll. For example, Jakob Nielsen ran a comprehensive eyetracking study in 2010 that shows people are more than willing to scroll. But, if you still remain unconvinced, you need to look no further than the phone in your pocket for validation.

The modern smartphone era began with iPhone in 2007. Let's take a look at the mobile New York Times home page in the latest version of iOS 7.

mobile New York Times home page

Notice what isn't there: scrollbars. The history of computing has seen the scrollbar morph from a control to guide you through the page to a visual indicator of where you are in the content. The iPhone made this transition possible thanks to the constraint of a small screen and the help of gestures to touch and swipe the content. It's so intuitive that toddlers know how to scroll on modern touch devices.

Apple has further solidified the scrollbar's new role in computing by copying scrolling functionality from the iPhone over to the Mac in 2011. By default the control doesn't appear, only showing an indicator when scrolling the content.

Whether through a gesture on a touch screen, a trackpad, or a wheel on a mouse, people are accustomed to scrolling.

Don't abuse the fold

Once you embrace the notion that people aren't afraid to scroll, it becomes much easier to fight the urge to keep as much content as possible above the fold.

The newspaper industry coined the phrase, but I think the web industry has distorted the original goal when adapting this important concept for online use.

The purpose of content above the fold is to attract. It was never intended to provide all the information someone could want about a story. Let's look at the print edition of the Times.

New York Times front page

What's the first thing you see above the fold? A massive photo. Its main purpose is to get you to pick up the paper to see what's below, or better yet, buy it.

On the web we should take this example to heart. The space above the fold isn't a dumping ground: it should hook your customer, inviting them to learn more.

The desire to put as much information or functionality above the fold can be strong, but there is a fundamental fact about the web that we should keep in mind: everyone has a different fold. With the endless array of devices and screen dimensions there is no dependable size to target that can be above the fold. This reality further supports going with a simple, enticing approach. Hint at what is to come and let your customer find their way naturally by scrolling.

This approach isn't just a subjective view, it's backed by research. Chartbeat found through user testing earlier this year that 66% of attention on a normal media page is spent below the fold.

Success is earning attention

The web was built on a foundation of hyperlinks. As revolutionary as they are, along the way conventional wisdom decided that clicking on them was the only thing that mattered. Traditional analytical tools and advertising networks reward getting as many clicks as possible.

The problem with focusing on clicks is it could lead to a negative user experience. I'm sure you've seen plenty of articles that are artificially paginated for no reason other than to increase click through rates. Other publications will write sensational headlines with the sole purpose to bait you into clicking.

Some publications and modern analytical tools are realizing the detriment this has to our overall experience on the web and have started to change. To showcase the New York Times yet again, earlier this year they redesigned their entire desktop article reading experience. Pagination on articles is gone, replaced with one long scrolling page. It therefore shifts their primary focus from clicks to attention. Commanding a customer's attention is much harder, and the way to accomplish that is by improving on the overall experience.

Strive for a good experience, always

Scrolling is faster in multiple ways, especially when it comes to a mobile device. On your phone, swiping across the screen is always faster than hunting for the right link to tap. Also, the most expensive operation for a browser is loading a page. If you break up your story into multiple pages, forcing full page loads in the browser, it will simply take longer for your customer to get your message. Even taking page load out of the picture, the Software Usability Research Lab found paginated reading to be considerably slower than scrolling.

A long scrolling page can alleviate this slow down even more by loading in content on demand. Content not in view yet doesn't have to load until the customer is ready to see it. Using this approach helps keep the initial load small, and loading bits of content afterward is much quicker than loading page after page.

Grabbing your customer's attention all comes back to the story. By focusing on the message, holding true to your customer's needs, and being open to the presentation that provides the optimal experience, you will find that serves everyone's best interests.

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