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Scrolling on the Web

Unconscious & Accurate Exploration

February 14, 2008
Although users say they don’t like to scroll, their actions in usability tests indicate quite the opposite.

Since the widespread acceptance of the GUI (Graphical User Interface) as the standard computer interface, scrolling through the text of long documents has been something of a necessary evil. With the advent of the web it has come to be considered a "design" issue as well -- an obstacle to be overcome through better layouts and technologies. The fact is, however, that although users say they don't like to scroll, their actions in usability tests indicate quite the opposite. When observed, users would scroll without issue, provided certain clues were present to suggest that scrolling was an expected behavior. Not only did users not mind scrolling, but they found information sooner and with greater accuracy.

Yet despite more widespread adoption of accessibility devices, like the scroll wheel on mice which moves page scrolling towards an "unconscious" navigation activity, and a number of studies on the matter, the myth that "scrolling is bad" still remains popular.

Previous wisdom suggested that documents be broken up into a mass of smaller pages so that all content would fit "above-the-fold" (as seen in the diagram above). The idea was that users didn't understand "scrolling behavior", but they did understand "link clicking behavior". As AOL's Milissa Tarquini (Director, User Interface Design and Information Architecture) suggests:

Even if the page appeared to be cut off, as current best practices dictate, it proved to be such an unusual experience to our users that they assumed that the application was "broken." We had to instill incredible discipline in all areas of the organization that produced these pages – content creation, design and development – to make sure our content fit on these little pages.

Although there is certainly something to be said for tailoring content length to be better suited to the web, longer pages actually improve the scan-ability of text by not requiring users to "drill down" to subsequent pages to find desired information. While scrolling may not be an activity that users look forward to consciously, "dead ends" as a result of following the wrong path through links are a much greater source of frustration.

In the end, the best course of action as suggested by the two leading experts on web usability, Jakob Nielsen and Jared Spool, is to create pages that scroll, but to use design clues to guide the user's behavior and prevent them from believing they have reached page end prematurely. By utilizing a number of simple techniques, users will find the information they seek on your site more readily, rather than going somewhere else.

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