Is the Infinitely Scrolling Page the Future of User Experience?

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Article ImageWeb publishers are getting more creative in finding ways to keep visitors on their sites for longer periods and to retain the people who come from social media sites. Infinite scrolling is a fairly new and increasingly popular way of making website users more "sticky" by providing a passively loaded, never-ending stream of content. Is pagination yesterday's news?

Binge Watching Meets the Web

Infinite scrolling is the practice of automatically loading additional content once a user gets close to the bottom of the screen. In theory, a user never runs out of new content as it miraculously appears (actually, it's usually done via JavaScript). Anyone who uses Twitter has experienced infinite scrolling.

Although it's new to the web, infinite scrolling is simply the medium's way of catching up to other digital media, most of which don't require users to do anything to load more content. "Most media in some sense work like this," says Josh Schwartz, chief data scientist at Chartbeat. "It's like with TV, where after a show ends another comes on; you don't have to do another action to get another show. Video on desktop web tends to do the same thing; it goes right into the next video."

To Scroll ...

Web design is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. The user interface (UI) that works for long-form journalism sites such as Longreads would be ill-suited for a social media site that produces bite-sized content meant for quick consumption, such as Twitter. "It's hard to even imagine how something like Twitter would look if you had to page through," Schwartz says. "Sort of the fun of Twitter is that you can just sit there and see this giant stream of what's happening. It would be such a different experience."

Infinite scrolling helps site users quickly scan for useful information. "If you have something that is relatively low engagement, like Twitter, where you're just reading news, perhaps you're clicking on a link, maybe not, it works great for that," says Anthony Overkamp, creative director at Engage. The technique also works well on an intranet news site, says Kara Pernice, managing director at Nielsen Norman Group (NNG). An NNG client in the pharmaceutical industry, who requested that his name not be used, says that infinite scrolling is the ideal format for efficiently allowing employees to post and consume news.

"When these types of feeds are accepted and commonly used at enterprises, the UI is expected to be like that on Twitter," the aforementioned client says. "The flat type of information lends itself nicely in this situation, when another employee might be browsing, wondering things like, ‘What's happening with the new product I heard about? Let me go see what the VP of that team is up to.'"

Several experts mentioned Google Images as perhaps the ideal implementation of infinite scrolling. (Google uses a hybrid infinite-scrolling technique for images but not for search, which returns 10 results.) "Google image search is actually a really good infinite scrolling site, where they give you kind of a large amount of results but they still break it down and give you that control to load more images when you get to the bottom," Overkamp says. "So you still have a kind of end point in sight. But you can click that ‘load more images' button as much as you want."

Yogev Ahuvia, a senior UX designer at Fundbox, likes Twitter's implementation of infinite scrolling as it "generously" remembers where a user left off. Infinite scrolling can be a good interface for mobile, allowing users to easily swipe down and consume content without having to manually refresh the page. "On a phone, we want the cleanest possible UI, so a cluttered homepage full of links is probably not going to be an optimal experience for mobile," Schwartz says. "So this sort of streaming interface often works well on mobile."

... or Not to Scroll

Some experts who like infinite scrolling for sites such as Twitter think the interface has no place on almost any other type of site, as it can confuse users and make them feel lost. "Just because scrolling down is easier doesn't mean the page should go on forever," Pernice says. "A long page that is well-organized and well-prioritized and has content that's expected is great, but it doesn't have to be infinite."

She likes the "may we suggest other topics" approach at the end of an article versus infinite scrolling. Infinite scrolling sites "never feel like I am finished and I can move on to a new topic or a new type of content," Pernice says. NNG has had a few clients use infinite scrolling, but the company generally doesn't recommend it.

"One of the biggest problems with it is it breaks the scroll bar," she says. People use a scroll bar as a "barometer" for how much content is on a page, and infinite scrolling breaks that implicit contract between publisher and user, Pernice says. So even though infinite scrolling is good in that it makes it seem as if a publisher has a great deal of content, Pernice says that infinite scrolling's shortcomings make it a poor design choice in most cases. "In terms of user experience and a user's control and expectations, it really breaks very basic principles," she says.

Even Facebook isn't immune to infinite scrolling faux pas, according to Overkamp, "mainly because they have some content that you can't get to at the bottom of the page with infinite scrolling. It kind of covers up their footer, depending on how quick you get to the bottom."

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