The Scourge of the Infinite Scroll

I don't know how to say this nicely, so I'm just going to say it: The infinitely scrolling page is a nightmare. The other day, a friend sent me a link to an op-ed he wrote in our local daily newspaper (which recently had a site redesign). I read the piece and then tried to scroll down to the comments. If I hadn't given up after a few minutes, I'd probably still be looking for the comments on that page--sunken-eyed and dehydrated.

Every once in a while, I'd come to an ad that made me think I'd finally reached the end of the page and the comments would magically appear. Nope.

I wondered: When did we get too lazy to navigate websites-that generally serve up plenty of content suggestions in the sidebar-using simple links and arrows? As soon as the previous thought entered my mind, I had to ask myself if I was just being a cranky ol' fuddy-duddy. But I'm not the only one who finds the infinitely scrolling page to be a plague among us. Jack Schofield wrote on ZDNet, "Sometimes, ‘infinite scrolling' means you can never get the information you want." Truth!

I can't tell you how many times I've done a Google search and clicked on a promising result, only to realize I was on an infinitely scrolling page-and finding the information that was pertinent to me was a Sisyphean task of scrolling, with jumpy pages and a generally terrible user experience. It ended with me clicking that simple, friendly arrow to get back to the search results and finding a more direct path to the information I need.

So why are so many sites opting for infinite scrolling? Well, it seems that web designers-and the folks who pay them-think you'll retain more users because all they have to do is scroll to get to more content. I guess that's true for the people who don't leave the site in a blind rage. I mean, it has to be true, right? People test these kinds of things. Well, not always.

Etsy didn't test the assumption that infinite-scroll capabilities lead to stickier pages before implementing a new search results interface. When users were presented with infinitely scrolling search results pages, user engagement fell off, and people relied on search less. Not exactly the desired results.

Yogev Ahuvia wrote "Infinite Scrolling: Let's Get to the Bottom of This" for Smashing Magazine and made an interesting point. He wrote, "Analytics show that when users search for information on Google, only 6% advance to the second page. So, 94% of users are satisfied with receiving only 10 results, which suggests that users find Google's ranking of results to be relevant." Users don't necessarily want infinite choices; they want the right choices. But most websites don't have Google-level abilities when it comes to personalizing your content; so instead, they just throw it all at you and hope it's sticky.

This doesn't mean infinite scrolling doesn't have its place. Twitter uses it very successfully. Because of the real-time, user-generated content, an infinite page that is constantly being updated with new material is useful. But when I click a link to a specific op-ed, you can be pretty sure that's what I want to see. If you want to offer me other options, that's fine-but please don't muddy my experience with a jumpy page filled with stuff I didn't ask for. 

The infinite scroll is a design trend. In my view, anything that is trendy should be looked at with great skepticism. Sure, maybe you have the kind of body that looks great in bell-bottoms or babydoll dresses, but not everyone does. Sometimes, it's wise to walk away from the latest fad and stick with a classic pair of slacks or pencil skirt. You might risk looking different from everyone else, but when your peers are looking back at pictures of their embarrassing wardrobe and shaking their heads, you can say, "Damn, I looked good!"

A site redesign is not unlike a shopping trip. There will be people telling you what everyone else is wearing and how great it makes them look. But don't just take their word for it-try on that infinitely scrolling page before you buy it, because it may look hideous on you.  

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There are many lessons to be learned from the rise and fall of Gigaom. The thing that struck me, though, was that this seemed to be an argument for ad-supported media. You don't hear many of those these days. We're used to hearing about newspapers and websites shutting down after dwindling ad revenue is not enough to keep them afloat. We see The New York Times and its ilk instating paywalls to help pad the bottom line. Rarely, however, do we hear cautionary tales of companies that dared to experiment with different monetization strategies and lost.