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As the Page Scrolls

by Jared M. Spool
on July 1, 1998

Users say they don’t like to scroll. As a result, many designers try to keep their web pages short.

But one of the most significant findings of our research on web-site usability
is that users are perfectly willing to scroll. However, they’ll only do
it if the page gives them strong clues that scrolling will help them find what
they’re looking for.

Go Short, or Go Long?

Designers have two choices when deciding how much to put on a web page:

  1. Create lots of short pages. With only a small amount of content
    and a few links, short pages require little or no scrolling. Many popular
    web books endorse this strategy. Theoretically, fewer links should make it
    easier for users to choose. However, shorter pages can force users to visit
    several pages ("drill down") before they find what they want.
  2. Create fewer, longer pages. With lots of content and many links,
    longer pages make users scroll to see what lies "below the fold" of
    each screen. Though it may seem trickier for users to choose from more links,
    what they’re looking for is fewer clicks away.

Our research shows that this second strategy — fewer, longer pages — may
be the best approach for users.

In the trade-off between hiding content below the fold or spreading it across
several pages, users have greater success when the content is on a single page.

Many users apparently choose links by first eliminating the links they don’t
think will work. If designers spread information across several pages, they
force users to "pogo-stick" back and forth between links and other
pages — a far less successful strategy. (See "Pogo-sticking: Downs
and Ups" in the July/August 1997 Eye For Design.)

Scrollin’, Scrollin’, Scrollin’

Users may tell us they hate scrolling, but their actions show something else.
Most users readily scrolled through pages, usually without comment.

On the version of the Fidelity site we studied (fidelity.com), the designers
had clearly decided to minimize scrolling by building short pages: no page
extended beyond a single browser window. We can’t be sure users even noticed
this feature: when we asked them what they liked about the sites, not one commented
about not having to scroll on Fidelity’s site. Compared to sites
where users had to scroll, this site did not do significantly better or worse.

Longer Pages Worked Better

We asked users to visit a web site and answer specific questions, assuring
them that the answers were on the site. We noted every link they clicked, then
later measured its distance from the top of the page. Users who chose links
from farther down the page were more likely to succeed.

Users who chose links closer to the bottom may simply have been more thorough
in their decision-making. But it turns out that links deep in the page have
other interesting attributes: they are mostly text links instead of graphical
links, they tend to be longer, and most of them are content links — pointing
directly to content.

Near the top of the page, category links — which point to other links — are
more common; we’ve found that content links are the most successful type.
(See "Not All Links are Created Equal" in the September/October 1997
Eye For Design.)

Shorter Pages, More Clicks

One criticism of long web pages is that they hide some information, forcing
users to scroll. Short pages may avoid this potential problem by showing more
(or all) of an individual page, but the information is still hidden — on
other pages. Users must still click repeatedly to get to the desired information.

Grouping Reduces Effort

Designers can easily control one theoretical disadvantage of longer pages — the
difficulty of choosing a link — by introducing a structure that users
understand. Users make better link choices when they can more readily eliminate "wrong" links;
organized links help them do this.

Although scrolling requires some effort from users, so does looking at a page
and deciding which link to click. Grouping links seems to help.

Users were more successful in finding information on pages with many groups
of links — at least up to 10 groups. (We have less data on pages containing
10 to 20 groups, but our analysis found nothing to suggest that larger numbers
of groups are harmful.)

Grouping Helps Users Zero in

One structure that seems particularly useful is placing similar links with
each other; this seems to help users discriminate. Finding nearby links they
recognize may have assured our users they were in the right place or close
to it. Groups of links may also make it easier for users to exclude links that
seem less likely to succeed. With less effort required to zero in on a link,
users may be more willing to expend their limited effort budget by scrolling.

Grouping links is only one way to structure information. In our analysis of
successful web pages, we also looked at factors such as alphabetized lists
and levels of information. We found that users quickly seemed to grasp that
a list was in alphabetical order and would scroll to find the item they wanted.

Increasing the levels of information — similar to adding sections to
an outline — also seemed to help users. Both these strategies produce
longer pages with more links.

Scroll-Stoppers

The users we tested were often willing to scroll long web pages, but a couple
of design factors may have stopped them prematurely.

Horizontal Lines

One page from the WebSaver site (websaver.com) has four groups of links — in
no discernible order. Nothing suggests that users will find more information
further down the page. Our users sometimes stopped scrolling when they reached
one of the horizontal lines demarcating areas of the page.

Horizontal lines like these may subconsciously cue users that they’ve
reached a stopping point. The presence of horizontal lines wasn’t statistically
significant in our analysis (possibly because we didn’t test many pages
with horizontal lines), so this is only a hypothesis. However, we saw this
stopping behavior several times.

On the other hand, users readily scrolled a page from the Edmund’s site
(edmunds.com), despite the many horizontal lines. We believe users quickly
grasped the fact that the manufacturers’ names are listed alphabetically,
implying that there’s more information farther down the page.

Bottom Nav Bar and Copyrights

A row of text links may also be a subtle "end of page" cue.

In the version of Boston.com we tested, the first screen of the home page
included several graphical links followed by some text links. Text immediately
below these links told users to scroll for more information, but none of our
users did. This could be because pages often end with a navigation bar of text
links at the bottom. Because copyrights and credits also frequently end a page,
their appearance elsewhere may have a similar effect. •

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems. You can follow Jared on Twitter at @jmspool.