Scrolling & The Fold

Amongst web designers and developers, few things will cause eyes to roll faster than the age-old debate about the existence of the “fold” and user scrolling behavior. Personal opinion and semantics often derail the conversation into one that isn’t productive or relevant to today’s multi-device landscape, but there is value in discussing both the “fold” and scrolling. However, we need to reframe this conversation into one that is centered around content architecture and prioritization.

While a misnomer, the “fold” does in fact exist. There’s a fold on your phone, your laptop, your gaming system, your tablet, your TV, and any other device you use that is internet enabled. So why are there so many articles telling us that there is no fold? They’re not wrong, because there isn’t one fold – there are an infinite number of folds. Simply put, the vast number of internet capable devices, and equally vast range of screen sizes, makes it impossible to identify a singular point at which content will not be viewable without scrolling. When you consider browser resizing, pixel density, and zooming – it becomes clear that catering a design to “the fold” is a fool’s errand.

Not unrelated, is the concern over scrolling. Specifically, whether or not users will know to scroll down the page, and if they are willing to do so. This was a much more relevant issue in the web’s early days when there were only a handful of screen sizes, and we weren’t designing responsively. Back then, considering whether or not a user would know to scroll or not was a legitimate concern. As a designer, you could be sure that your design would look the same from user to user, so designing many short pages vs. fewer longer pages was an important consideration. In a 1998 (yes, 1998) article, UX expert Jared Spool detailed research about scrolling and found that users are willing to scroll, if there are visual cues that they should do so. Skeptical about research that is over 15 years old? Good, you should be, but in this case consider that even though user behavior habits and patterns were in the early stages of development, scrolling wasn’t really an issue if visual cues were present.

Fast forward to present day, and it’s more widely accepted that Everyone Scrolls. Thanks to research conducted by Huge Inc., we can feel more assured that our important content won’t go unseen in the abyss below the fold (although it may take a well designed nudge for the user to scroll). In the Huge Inc. study, four versions of a design were presented to users;

  • control image, no visual cues to scroll
  • scroll arrow as a cue to scroll
  • short image, where users had to scroll to see above-the-fold content in it’s entirety
  • animated image with a moving element cueing viewers to go below the fold

Depending on the design version, between 91% – 100% of users scrolled. 91% – 92% scrolled immediately, and 73% – 92% reached the bottom of the page. The key takeaway is that users almost always scroll, regardless of the presence of a visual cue.

None of this is to say there isn’t some merit in the sentiment of the fold, or concern over scrolling. But when we make statements like “xyz needs to be above the fold” or “users don’t/won’t scroll all the way down”, we are probably being too narrow-minded. With the understanding that there isn’t a true, canonical version of a site (after all, we design for the web, not a device), we should be asking questions like, “is a visual cue needed at this viewport height?”, or “does the design do enough to encourage scrolling?”, or “is the content compelling enough for the user to want to consume more?”. These questions are more productive and relevant than arguments about “the fold” or a user’s willingness to scroll, and they will lead to more effective, future-friendly solutions.

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