Is the Infinitely Scrolling Page the Future of User Experience?

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Considering Infinite Scrolling? Read This.

Infinite scrolling can be a superb interface for certain types of websites, especially ones with low engagement. Before deciding to go with infinite scrolling as a UI, designers need to be clear about why they want to use it. "I think with any design, the key is to really always take a step back and say, ‘What's the true goal of this design, and is the interface mechanism that I am attempting to apply here really the right thing to do?'" Pernice says.

Once a publisher has decided to go to infinite scrolling, experts say that a successful implementation depends on following these design principles:

  • "Lazy load" content-Sometimes, loading a lot of content can put a strain on a user's device, Overkamp says, and designers don't want users getting to the bottom of a page and waiting for content to load. He suggests loading just 20 images instead of hundreds, for example, and then loading another 20 when the user gets near the bottom of the page.
  • Provide an end point for the user-"Even if that's just a ‘load more content' button, that tells you that this is a point that I could stop or choose to load more content, which gives them that sense of control and a friendlier experience," Overkamp says.
  • Consider a sticky footer-Footers help users who are lost. If they can't find what they're looking for in the header or the body, they'll look to the footer-if they can find it. "You can have a sticky footer with your design; make sure it's always accessible," Overkamp says. "It's all about giving your users the sense of control that they may need."
  • Don't break the back button-A thoughtful implementation of infinite scrolling allows users to leave a site and use the back button to return to the spot they were when they left.
  • "If you're going to do infinite scrolling, do it right," says Overkamp.

Etsy Users Didn't Respond to Infinite Scrolling

Ecommerce providers are generally not members of the infinite scrolling fan club. Amazon gives users up to 27 item choices with an option to go to the next page for more results, while Walmart offers 20 choices and a next page option. Why so few choices? Choice is good, right?

That's what principal engineer Dan McKinley, of the online retailer Etsy, thought. McKinley, who has since left Etsy, said in a 2012 presentation that the retailer decided to A/B test infinite scrolling because "seeing more items is presumed to be a better experience. The reason we did this was because we thought that it [was] obvious that more items, faster, was a better experience. There's a lot of web lore out there to that effect," he said. (Etsy's traditional interface shows 48 search results.)

The results were not what the company expected. "People who had infinite scroll saw fewer items in search results than people in the control group, not more." (Actually, it's about half as many.) And these users clicked on fewer items, saved fewer items as favorites, and bought fewer items from search.

Etsy users who tested infinite scrolling didn't buy less than users who saw the traditional interface, but they did stop using the search feature to find things. "It was clear we'd made search worse," McKinley stated. Despite seeing more product choices, users presented with the infinite scrolling interface didn't buy more. "In the end the expected benefits to infinite scroll just didn't seem to be there," he said. "Our premises were wrong. So we took infinite scroll out back and we shot it."

It's not totally clear why ecommerce sites are not using infinite scrolling to provide customers with a limitless amount of choice. Some UI designers think that a virtually endless list of products presents users with the so-called paradox of choice, which postulates that having a few good choices is easier psychologically than being presented with hundreds of average options that need to be sorted through. Other experts say infinite scrolling can work on ecommerce sites, and designers just haven't been able to optimize the design.

Infinite Scrolling and SEO

At first blush, infinite scrolling seems to break a site's SEO. How can Google and Bing find pages that don't exist yet because they're created on demand? UI experts say that it's not that big of a problem-as long as the site designers are careful. "Content created on-scroll sure does break SEO by definition, but there are solutions," says Ahuvia.

"It's suggested that you divide your content up in a paginated series (component pages) to work alongside of your infinite scroll, make sure you are using an URL structure that accommodates infinite scroll, and also make sure each ‘page' or section of content still follows the other SEO practices you would normally use on any other site," he states. "This way, crawlable links exist and page SEO does not suffer." Google wrote a "thorough article" about how to make an infinite scroll site SEO-friendly, Ahuvia says.

Is Infinite Scrolling the Future of Web UI?

The use of infinite scrolling as a UI is expanding beyond social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. ESPN is using a heavy dose of infinite scrolling on its recently redesigned site, its first redesign since 2009. Additionally, time.com uses infinite scrolling to tempt viewers to keep reading articles but eschews its use on its homepage.

The rise of side-door traffic coming from social media is causing sites to consider infinite scrolling. Users coming from social tend to just read a couple of paragraphs of a story and leave, according to Schwartz. And since most-if not the majority of-mobile traffic comes from social, infinite scrolling is one way to "push those people deeper into sessions," and entice them to stay longer, he says.

Articles on espn.com have a distinct URL and can be bookmarked (which is difficult to do on Twitter without third-party apps). ESPN does not use infinite scrolling on its long-form Grantland site.

Overkamp hopes that Google doesn't introduce true infinite scrolling to its image search, as his productivity might suffer. "I think about the Google image search, and if there wasn't a ‘load more content' [button], I'd keep going and going," he says. "That changes my, ‘I need 5 minutes to search for an appropriate image,' to, ‘I might spend an hour looking for that next, better image.'"

Properly implemented, infinite scrolling can be an aid to finding content and converting casual users to more consistent ones, while poorly designed infinite scrolling sites can be off-putting by overwhelming users with stimuli.  

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