Does it matter if users need to scroll?

Written by Matt Keogh on 12th February 2015

(Last updated 27th October 2016)

2 comments
Does it matter if users need to scroll?

“The Fold” - Does it exist?

The concept of “The Fold” comes from magazines and newspapers where enticing information was positioned in the top section so that it was visible if the newspaper or magazine was folded.

In web design terms “below the fold” has come to mean anything that isn’t initially shown on the screen without the user having to scroll down to view it.

Speaker holding up cards saying that there is no fold

This is often the reaction to “The Fold” amongst the web community. Image credit to Gavin Bell

The term “The Fold” originated for print so there’s an argument that it doesn’t exist on the web. However, whenever a new technology appears, often terminology from previous technologies get carried across that give people a common reference. In web design we still use terms such as “page, banner, header, footer” etc.

Another argument is that it’s very difficult to know where the bottom of the browser window is for each user. This changes depending on device and user preference. However, just because we don’t know where something is, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

It could be said that the fold doesn’t exist because a website user is able to scroll straight away. There isn’t the same barrier to reading further as a fold in a newspaper. So how much of a “barrier” is this? Is this really an issue? Can we simply ignore it?

The Fold exists. So do people scroll?

Research that suggests scrolling is an issue:

At first, there appears to be conflicting evidence as to whether people scroll. Much of this stems from Jacob Nielsen’s 1994 study that only 10% of users scroll a navigation page to see any links that were not visible in the initial display.  However, in 1997 Nielsen later retracted that statement saying:

...users scroll when they visit a long home page or a long navigation screen. This change in  behaviour  is probably due to users getting more experience with scrolling Web pages” Source

He later goes on to cite that the change in behaviour may be due to people getting more experience scrolling web pages. In February 2015, research published on the Nielsen website suggests that although people do scroll, users treat info above and below the fold differently:

“The average difference in how users treat info above vs. below the fold is 84%.” Source

Research that suggests scrolling is a non-issue:

“…participants almost always scrolled, regardless of how they are cued to do so” Source

“The most clicked on item on the TMZ homepage is the link at the very bottom of the page that takes users to the next page.” Source

“Pixels at the top of the page are in view for the shortest amount of time — about 4 seconds — and the amount of time in view steadily rises as we move downpage to a peak between about 1200 pixels down.” Source

Why are there conflicting views?

Fifteen years ago, there wasn’t such a variety of monitor sizes and often a website was built to fit within these sizes. Some of the seemingly conflicting views is a hangover from that period.

The most recent research (February 2015) published on the Nielsen website may appear to  suggest that people struggle to scroll. However, the article clearly states that a user will scroll if they are encouraged to do so.

There are many factors in the different sets of research which make conclusive arguments difficult. For example there are different types of pages, different types of users and different types of intentions. If the research is using websites that have no consideration for keeping the user’s attention then it may appear more generally that people don’t scroll.  

How big of an issue is this really?

Obviously, if people aren’t scrolling to see your content then this is a big issue. However, a good designer will create a website that is engaging enough to scroll and research proves that users are happy to oblige, often scrolling instinctively, even before the page has even finished loading.

The issue can often be exaggerated because it is intrinsically linked with how we prioritise content - how much space we allocate content, what order should content come in etc. The bottom of the screen can therefore seem like a valid metric to be used for how we come to these decisions.

Also a client may often present a website to a boardroom using a projector or TV. If a client is unable to instinctively scroll - they’d sit there looking at the top part of a website so can only pass judgement on what they are seeing. This is totally different to how people actually use websites. Website users interact - they don’t sit and stare at it.

All of this can over emphasise the issue, giving the impression that content and images should be crammed in the top half of the screen.  

So can we ignore the fold?

Ignoring the fold is like sticking your head in the sand. 

The fold can be thought of as a first impression and research suggests that users form design decisions in under 17ms. With such a limited time to grab attention it makes sense to consider what people see in that initial instance and make sure it’s enough to encourage scrolling. 

The challenge

Our challenge as web designers is to educate clients that people scroll. We must discourage designing a web page for the smallest common screen size as cramming everything up into that space will lead to sites feeling cramped. It also ignores the potential of utilising screen space for those with larger screens. However we need to recognise that most clients and end users won’t be looking at the website on 27inch iMacs so our beautiful designs might not have the impact that we hope for.

The challenge for clients is to trust us when we say that we really don’t need so much content above “The Fold” and to also accept that there are so many different screen sizes that we’ll never be truly in control of how much content is seen.  


Update August 2015

Do you find that clients are asking you to move content further up? If so you may find my follow up article “Avoiding Issues with the Fold” useful.

This article was posted in Design, Client Guides, UX by Matt Keogh

  • Matt Keogh

    Matt Keogh

    Matt is our Senior Designer who is perfect at pixel placement. At the weekend he likes to kick back, watch a film or two and spend time with his family (or so he tells us!). @matsaukeo

Comments

I "hate" scrolling - mostly.
Certainly on websites with a long column of unrelated items - which intuitively should be on separate pages.

What is worse is when the actual content is minimal - but space is wasted with:
- HUGE photo

- single column of text

- OVER-LARGE text

- with over-large space between elements / paragraphs

forcing the Visitor to "work" for very little payoff.

Long Newspaper sites are irritating - esp. when the articles are random and unrelated. One is expected to scroll past truckloads of celebrity stories to get to real news "meat".
Are lists of Contents, clearly categorised SOOOO "old-fashioned"???

Possible exceptions for scrolling are ....
- forums.
- errrr that's it !

Jules02/04/2016 22:55

Hi Jules - thanks for your comment!

When done right, a long one page website can be very engaging.

However, as you say not considering content priority and forcing the user to work for the sake of a visual style gets pretty frustrating. It’s also about context - is this a marketing website where you’re telling a story or is it purely informational. Ideally the spacing of a website dictates the pace at which it is read at and enganged with.

The last thing anyone wants to see is a return to a time where designers tried to keep all content “above the fold”. Anyone remember designing for 800px by 600px? Not only does this not make sense with so many different screen sizes but it creates cramped websites. Research shows that if engaged, people have no problem with scrolling and often scroll to the bottom of a page without even waiting for it to load.

With vertical media queries, flex box and viewport height, I think we’ll see designers become a bit smarter with screen heights. Although we don’t know exactly where “the fold” is we’ll be able to take into account the height of the screen for our designs.

I’ve written a follow up article to this that you may find interesting https://www.liquidlight.co.uk/blog/article/avoiding-issues-with-the-fold/

It would be interesting to see a list of websites that you feel are too long and could be condensed.

Matt Keogh21/04/2016 09:55

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