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Scrolling content is an often debated topic and usability consideration when designing an online experience. Ultimately the answer to whether the content or page should scroll is not always clear and often needs to be validated with user testing. In order to get to user testing the design needs to first balance the user’s needs and the content needs. You need to find the answers to these questions: “what is the content”, “who is the user ?”, “what are the user’s goals?” and “what are the user’s task?”
When I previously worked for an online education company, we created specific user testing to help determine if the lesson interface should scroll. For this user test, we created two prototypes of the user interface. The first prototype displayed the lesson in a paginated method and the other prototype displayed the lesson in one scrolling page. In the end, both methods were desired by the user for two different scenarios. The scrolling interface was preferred when the task was “reviewing of the content” and the paginated view when their task was “first time learning” of the content. The scrolling page allowed for quicker searching and scanning of the content, while the paginated view offered a less overwhelming experience for initial ingestion of the content. I recently saw a similar dual interface on Dell’s website for configuring a new computer. The default view is the paginated view where the content is “chunked” into pages and the second view is a one page scrolling view. The paginated view provides a less overwhelming experience for a user who does not often configure a computer, while a one page view is appropriate for a user who has previously configured a computer. The one page view also supports a “review” scenario for someone who uses the paginated view, but might want to review their configuration at anytime.
On another recent project I observed user testing where a few users were more negative to scrolling than the other users. Clearly the less web-savvy users were more averse to scrolling than the more experienced users, but another user preferred non-scrolling not because they were less savvy, but because their favorite website did not scroll. This user was not conditioned to scroll to find content. In the early days of the AOL interface, users were conditioned in a similar way. AOL catered to an audience that was not web-savvy and took great effort in not scrolling their pages which resulted in other content presentation side effects and challenges. In the end they conditioned their users on how content was accessed.
Similar to conditioning user behavior, you can create expectations of a non-scrolling interface with the initial presentation of the content. If the content is presented tightly within the screen view, it will give the user a sense that there is nothing else to view. Jared Spool speaks to this topic in his blog.
Controlled scroll areas within a page is another variation of the scrolling challenge. At times a controlled scroll area is the best solution for secondary content. At times it is better to retain “context” between primary and secondary content and the controlled scroll area support this. Another acceptable controlled scroll area scenario is when all the content does not initially need to be seen and it is expected the user has enough motivation to scroll to find the additional content. In this case a controlled scroll area is also appropriate. In both of these cases, a controlled scroll area can help solve page real estate challenges. If you use iTunes, you can see controlled scroll areas used often. When iTunes uses these scroll areas, they are accomplishing two things, they are minimizing potential information overload and also provide access to deep content without forcing the user to navigation away from the page or push other related content out of context.
The idea that important content should be displayed above the fold is still relevant, but because all users and content are not the same and the users continue to evolve their online behaviors, the scrolling effect will continue to be a design decision to carefully consider especially as new online platforms and user interfaces are designed. Don’t fall into the trap of jamming all your content above the fold and then create a larger usability problem. It is important not to blindly follow a simple rule that applies to all scenarios. Realize that there is a difference between scrolling 2 pages verses 5 pages. It is also important to appreciate the difference between scrolling through organized content verses disorganized content. Also, sometimes controlled scroll areas within a page are appropriate. Who the user is and what the content is, are still the most important factors in determining the design solution for scrolling.