In our multi-touch, high bandwidth digital world, the number of webpages with infinite scrolling is rising sharply. But it’s not always a good thing as I’ll try to explain in this short blog post.
Popularised by social networking sites like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter since 2011, this new approach to pagination removes the need for a site visitor to click to the next page. Instead they simply continue scrolling downwards or sideways, either by touch or using a mouse or keyboard commands.
For sites that host lots of visual or user-generated content, infinite scroll can be a superb way to present content. Mashable uses this technique to good effect, allowing visitors to scan through dozens of articles with very little click action. Flat-structured sites like photographic galleries lend themselves perfectly to this technique because much of the content sits at the same hierarchical level and so warrants equal amounts of visitor focus. The inevitable downside for these seemingly endless sites is that click-through rates for each piece of content often fall due to users being repeatedly distracted by fresh loading content further down the page.
This inability to focus user attention infinite scroll may be a bad design choice for sites that exist to encourage a specific end action. E-commerce sites, for instance, can be considered successful only when the shopper completes a purchase transaction. They are, therefore, unlikely to succeed if buyers feel overwhelmed by the choices presented. This explains why sites like Amazon and Ebay doggedly refuse to add infinite scrolling, preferring instead to make their customers consciously click from one page to the next. An option to ‘See All Products’ is also used commonly, to remove the click burden from those who wish to view all products at once, without the distraction of a never-ending scroll.
Another often missed downside of infinite scroll is the processing demands placed on both the site visitor and the browser. For the user, a page without end can make it challenging to return to a specific position on the site, requiring more cognitive effort and memory recall from the site visitor. For the web browser software, infinite scroll can result in loading huge amounts of background data, placing a burden on the available bandwidth and computing device memory. Additionally, as you may have experienced on sites like LinkedIn, infinite scroll can really make a mess of the much-loved vertical scroll bar, shrinking the control handles to an un-grabbable dimension and rendering this navigation aid largely unusable.
The final, and perhaps most obvious, downside of infinite scrolling is that it makes reaching the footer of the page either very difficult or impossible. The site footer provides both a useful framing device for the page as well as a widely understood home for popular information links like ‘about us’, ‘contact’, terms & conditions, and privacy. Try finding the footer on the ITV News website and you’ll understand the anxiety and frustration some people feel when confronted by a never-ending page.
In summary, infinite scrolling can be an elegant and desirable navigation technique for sites that need to present lots of content within one hierarchical level and where no single end action is expected. However, for transactional and goal-oriented sites, infinite scrolling is usually not a recommended approach because of the navigational issues this can cause and the extra processing burden it places on the user and their device.