To scroll or paginate…that is the question.

By now, we are all familiar with the movement toward the “Long Scroll” site, or the “Infinite Scroll.” Essentially, the difference between these two are that while the Long Scroll site features all of its content on a single page, there is a definable end to the page. The Infinite Scroll, on the other hand, dynamically loads additional content as the user reaches the end of the page, theoretically with no end.

Why has society been trending towards the single-page site? Mobile devices! Last year, many websites saw a flip in the device type of the majority of visitors; from desktop to mobile. When on mobile, it is easier to simply flick one’s finger to scroll through content. The rise in social media has also driven this trend, because someone using one of these sites isn’t usually looking for something in particular, and is happy to consume fresh content without the hurdle created by pagination. Makes sense, so why not use the Long Scroll across the board?

Essentially, this is a dilemma that boils down to Retention versus Conversion; content-consumption versus goal-driven actions. We all know that the more interaction required of a user, the more likely the user will drop off the site. So on a site where the purpose is to feed a visitor interesting information – such as imagery, blog posts, user-generated content – it makes the most sense to use an infinite scroll. Another benefit to using infinite scroll on a site like these is you can save on bandwidth and server resources because you’re only providing the visitor with the amount of data that they are most likely to consume.

Many experts will argue that other reasons against the infinite scroll include:

  1. No footer – If your page scrolls for an indeterminate length, any information that would normally be found in a footer is unobtainable.  In my opinion, this is minor.  A good information architect can easily solve to find another place for this information.
  2. Poor SEO – I used to argue this case, too.  The thinking is that if your site is only one page, how are search engines going to accurately analyze and prioritize the sections of your site?  How will you know where the pain points are, what sections are drawing the most attention, etc?  It will take more work, but through the use of Google’s In-Depth Analytics, we can assign events to scroll length and other events that we can use to measure user interaction.   Many experts claim more pages equals a larger search engine presence, but this is not the case – these days, it’s all about the content.
  3. Bookmarking/placement – If a visitor scrolls down through several dynamic load sessions and leaves the page or wants to bookmark something specific found at that location, it is claimed to be “impossible.”  I argue that it IS possible, and with some clever javascript, cookies, and pseudo-pagination (“page” numbers that increment as you scroll), you can reliably return a user to their last known position or bookmark.

However, if the site is goal-oriented – meaning the purpose is to guide the user through a purchase path or lead them through something instructional – a long scroll is actually detrimental.  The reason is because our brains can only process so much at a time.  This is also why a ten digit phone number is split into three, three, and four – because our brains crave increments and can process them more easily.  If you feed someone too much information at once, they will begin to feel overwhelmed.  Pagination can also help a user feel like they are making progress and feel like there will be a finite end to the process.

This reminds me of a problem I had as a kid – every weekend my parents would give me a bunch of chores they expected me to finish, after which I could go play.  The problem was I never got to the playing part because I froze under the perceived weight of that interminable list!  My ever-so-clever mom solved this problem for me by giving me a chore list with check boxes.  I could focus on one task, check it off, move on to the next, and see that I was making progress.  I was back outside, knee-deep in mud in no time!

A great example of the proper use of pagination on the web is in e-commerce.  Vendors realized that visitors were falling out of the buying process before completing the purchase.  Through the use of in-depth analytics and user testing, they found that the exhaustive forms necessary to complete an online purchase were just too overwhelming.  They solved this by breaking the process up into bite-size morsels, and delineated these morsels with a few milestones.  Instead of updating your cart contents, entering shipping/billing information, credit card information, possibly additional profile information all at once, it appeared to be as simple as 1-2-3!  The other benefit of this process is that people are more likely to finish the process after completing a couple of steps because they can see the progress they’ve made and feel a sense of investment.

Take Crate&Barrel, for example.  Baymard.com has ranked this site as having the highest score in their usability benchmark for checkout processes, and the reason is quite evident:
crateBarrel
A clean, intuitive process with 4 easy to follow steps – and voila, your new couch will arrive in a few days.

In my opinion, what is all boils down to is quite simple and can be summarized by a quote my mother used to say to me ALL the time:  “Everything in moderation.”  Yes, a long scroll increases time-on-page, and pagination breaks goal-driven-sites into manageable chunks, however, too much of either method is a bad thing.

My recommendation for most situations is to consider a hybrid approach, taking the best from each method.  How about a scrolling page that shows incremental numbers that a visitor can use as reference and bookmark?  How about taking your goal-driven-site and decrease the number of pages by increasing the length of each?

In both situations, any way that we can decrease the amount of data being delivered to a consumer, refining the results according to the visitor’s direction will increase retention and conversion.  So whether you are implementing an infinitely scrolling page or a paginated site, consider using these devices:

  1. content filters such as categories, tags, and types
  2. sorting methods such as alphabetical, chronological, and popularity

In my opinion infinite scroll is not the bad guy it’s been made out to be – it has its place and deserves some of the popularity it has been receiving.  Before you switch your traditional-navigation-site, consider the reasons, benefits, and drawbacks to each method.  Consider a hybridized approach, giving your visitors the tools they need to properly utilize your site.

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