The Fold: Enough is Enough

I rarely remember my dreams. Sometimes they’re gone so quickly I’m not sure I ever actually had them. I don’t think I have reoccurring dreams, but then again it would be hard to confirm. There is one exception however, one dream which I’ve been having since 2005.

In this dream I’m in a dark conference room debating over the design decisions. Design decisions I made intentionally, but are questioned on the basis of “the fold.” Sometimes I’m debating over the phone, other times via web conference, or maybe I’m wasting an hour writing a artfully crafted response via e-mail. The worst however, is when I’m debating people face to face. Of course, these aren’t dreams… they just feel like it.

I first heard the term “the fold” in 2005; a snappy throw back to the print days which describe content visible on the front page before a newspaper was folded in half. At some point in web design the term was adopted to describe the content visible before a user had to scroll… makes sense. Seems harmless, but this term has haunted me for the last eight years. Even in 2005 design leaders were saying the fold should no longer be a design consideration. But here we are, in 2013, and I still have these conversations fairly regularly.

Why is this concept so hard to let go of? Why is it assumed that people don’t scroll when we constantly scroll through webpages all throughout the day? Why are clients, managers, bosses and designers still worried about a concept that was debunked way back in 1997?

Despite my disdain for “the fold,” and the larger issue at large — scrolling — there was a time where it was important.

Why Do People Worry About Scrolling?

If I could only teach one thing to a new designer it would be this, “The human race is lazy.” I don’t mean that in a negative way, I’m just being honest. You, me, your mother… we’re all lazy. But actually, this is a good thing. See, back when getting food was more difficult than running to the corner store and our biggest threat to survival was ourselves, our energy levels were critical for survival. You can’t outrun a lion if you’ve spent the day hurling rocks into the air for no reason. As a result, the humans who conserved energy for the times they really needed it survived to reproduce. Fast forward millions of years and we still have this genetic desire to conserve energy.

Evolution and Scrolling

What does this have to do with scrolling? Simple. Scrolling takes energy. I know it sounds trivial but it’s more significant than you might think. Now obviously the physical act of scrolling is unlikely to wear you out — and if it does — it’s time to step away from the computer anyways. But the mental power required to comprehend the information entering your visual cortex is worth considering.

It’s well established that users don’t read much of the text on the web, it would take too much time and energy to literally read every word on every page you ever visited. To conserve energy, our brain takes shortcuts. We quickly scan the page, looking for any patterns that match what we’re looking for. If we want to find a phone number, we scan the entire page and only focus on things that resemble a phone number. Everything else is ignored. This conserves energy.

Scanning takes mental effort even though it’s a shortcut. You still have to interpret the visual stimuli, compare it to your massive memory of visual objects, assess if it’s worth focusing on and then actually focus and finally process it completely. When you scroll, this happens continuously until you stop or reach the bottom of the page.

So when you feel like your scrolling unnecessarily, it uses energy your body thinks should be conserved. As a result, scrolling can feel dissatisfying, making you think that scrolling is unpleasant.

In actuality, there was a time when designing above the fold was a good idea. People were new to the web, internet connections were slow, hosting was expensive and screen resolutions were tiny. Some people didn’t know how to scroll (or that they could) long pages took up more space and were longer to download. At this point in time, web design tended to be more cluttered. The lack of screen real estate meant less white space and more columns. The dreaded “three column” layout comes to mind. All of these reasons meant in some situations, less scrolling was a good thing. This is no longer the case. Let’s look at what’s changed.

Less Clicks, More Length

At this point in time, it’s better to have a longer page than more clicks. In essence, the reverse is true.  So what happened? Did scrolling become easier? or did clicking become harder? Well, both.

Click Effort

Let’s break down the act of clicking and the experience surrounding it. You’ve arrived on a page, looking for information. You don’t readily see the information you seek but there is a link that seems like a good enough candidate so you go ahead and click on it. You now must wait for the server to respond and the page to load (or view, if you’re one of those people who think the “page” is dead). Ideally this is a matter of seconds, but it still interrupts your flow. Once the page loads you must reevaluate where you are. Did the link take you where you expected? Are you on the same website? Has the navigation changed? While all of this happens so quickly you are unlikely to notice, it continues to slow down your task. At this point, you’re in the same situation you were previously. You have to scan the page looking for relevant information or another link that will take you closer to your goal. Your mind filters out anything that doesn’t appear relevant and shifts your focus towards anything that does.

Now let’s compare this to the act of scrolling.

Scroll Effort

If we break down the experience of scrolling, we will see it takes less mental effort. You’ve arrived on a page, looking for information. You don’t readily see the information you seek, so you scroll down. As you scroll down your mind must process the content presented before you. Much like clicking, your mind filters out anything that doesn’t appear relevant and draws your attention to anything that does. That’s it.

The sheer length of my two descriptions should be enough to demonstrate the amount of effort in clicking vs scrolling. You might be thinking, “all new websites should be a single page then?” Well unfortunately it’s not that simple.

When is a Click Clickworthy?

While there have been an increase in single page sites, they tend to be simplistic in nature, and there is a reason for that. There are situations where scrolling would be more cumbersome than clicking and it’s fairly easy to identify. Adding additional clicks for the sake of eliminating scrolling unnecessarily increases effort and therefore hurts the user’s experience. That said, there are times where it is quicker and easier to click on a link and be immediately taken to the information you seek rather than having to scroll past a bunch of irrelevant content to find it. In some situations you can get the best of both worlds by using anchor links on a longer page, but there is a limit to how long you can make a page before it feels overwhelming.

Now that I’ve written 1,000 words to answer the question “do users prefer scrolling to clicking?” with “it depends,” let’s address the original question. Should we be concerned with “the fold?”

Should We Be Concerned With the Fold?

No. Next question.

In all seriousness, it’s been proven that people scroll. Many times. The idea that something is invisible if it isn’t the first thing the users sees is antiquated. Furthermore, it’s unrealistic to expect to know where the fold is. Where is the fold on a mobile phone? Depends on which phone. What about a tablet? Again, depends on the tablet? Desktop? Same story. The only way you can be sure it will be visible upon loading is to make it the first thing on the page. And guess what, you can only do that with one element so choose wisely.

With the adoption of mobile technology, scrolling is becoming more natural and as demonstrated is often easier.

The Scrolling Misconception

One of the primary causes of the overemphasis on scrolling (or lack there of) is a misunderstanding of the issue users have with scrolling. Scrolling requires mental energy, more than you might realize. As visual stimuli leaves and enters the screen your brain works hard to quickly scan what it’s seeing, identify any potential areas of value (ie: something related to your task) and filter out everything else. This metal work can manifest a feeling of discomfort, leading to a negative association of scrolling. This leading to the assumption that people don’t like scrolling. But the real truth is a bit more complicated than that. It’s not that people don’t like scrolling, it’s that they don’t like scrolling when they don’t have too or if there isn’t a strong indication their effort will be rewarded.

What users see initially is used to make a decision to scroll or not. Think about that for a minute… what the user sees initially is used to make a decision about further exploration. This is not a problem with the mechanics of scrolling, it’s a problem with what the user initially sees. If there is a strong indication that scrolling will help complete the task at hand users will scroll intuitively. It’s only when they are presented with a dauntingly long page and no indication that scrolling all the way to the bottom will be of any value. We’ve been worrying about page/view segmentation when we should be worrying about information sent.

Furthermore, scrolling can have a cognitive advantage vs clicking.

Flow and Focus

Scrolling has one particular benefit over clicking and that’s the retention of focus. Clicking is an interruption. You perform an action which pauses your activity and then requires a series of observations and reassessment before you can continue. These interruptions are short, but they are noteworthy. There has been much research on how long it takes to refocus after an interruption. While a click isn’t the same as your co-working waddling over to tell you about their weekend drinking cheap beer and watching football, it still resets your concentration. Scrolling however, is a continuous activity. Provided there are no outside distractions and interest is maintained (again, information sent) the user never loses focus. Provided the user is able to complete their task, energy is conserved and they experience a more pleasurable experience.

Last Words

To me, happiness is never having to hear (or write about) “the fold” again. Maybe someday things will change and the fold will become important again. But for now, it’s time to give it a rest. It’s impossible to know where the fold is due to the wide range of web enabled devices. Furthermore users have grown also accustom to scrolling and have been for years. If anything, the adoption of smaller, mobile devices has made scrolling more natural. Finally, clicking can induce more cognitive load anyways.

Let’s move on. Don’t cram everything in the top few hundred pixels of the screen. Let’s stop talking about it.