UX myths debunked: #1 The fold

From the perfect font size to what constitutes too many clicks, there are many widely held false beliefs that I encounter as a UX practitioner. Holding on to such misbeliefs is downright detrimental to designing and developing great digital experiences. By responding to how we think people behave, we fail to accommodate how they actually do behave. I recently tackled five common UX myths in a short article for Research Information and this series of posts will explore those ideas in more detail.

Let’s begin by examining the notion that all the important content on a web page should be placed above the fold. This misconception has been around for a while and the resulting casualties are a multitude of cluttered and confusing pages strewn across the web. Home pages in particular suffer from this affliction: almost every project I have worked on has included the request to just squeeze one more thing into a cramped revamped design.

The concept of the fold comes from broadsheet newspapers, which are typically displayed with only the top half of the front page visible. Stories or images placed “above the fold” reflect content that the editors felt was most important or enticing to potential readers. In terms of web design, above the fold refers to content that is accessible without scrolling, which is considered to be prime real estate. Bolstered by the misbelief that people don’t scroll, the idea that all important content must appear above the fold has flourished.

Like many myths, this one crystallised around a grain of truth. Back in the early days of the web, people really didn’t scroll. Personal computers and web browsers were new to many people, and scrolling was simply not an obvious action. Up until the mid 1990s, most monitors had a display resolution of around 640 x 480. Since nobody was familiar with scrolling and everyone had similarly small screens, designing to accommodate all content above the fold made sense. As a result, many people didn’t scroll because they simply didn’t expect to do so. When people did scroll, it was often arduous activity thanks to clunky mice and finicky scroll bars.

Scroll bars emerged as a user interface element in the 1980s and for the next three decades the basics remained the same: a handle on a vertical bar shows your position and you scroll up or down by dragging the handle, while two buttons also allow you to move incrementally. Then in 2007, Apple released its iOS that featured hidden scroll bars, which appear only when the user is already scrolling. Suddenly, scroll bars were relegated to mere indicators; their primary purpose to show us where we are, not take us there.

Rather than fiddling around with a scroll bar and a temperamental mouse, scrolling now typically involves nothing more than a simple flick of the fingers across a touch sensitive screen or trackpad. Such hardware innovations have evolved in tandem with our expectations for scrolling. That scroll bars have disappeared from our screens is a testament to quite how intuitive scrolling has become.

Aside from the fact that people will happily scroll these days, there is a far more fundamental problem with trying to accommodate content above the fold. Since the late 1990s, when Jakob Nielsen first reported the growing acceptance of scrolling, screen size has also been steadily on the increase. At the other end of the scale, the proliferation of smartphones and tablets has led to an explosion of smaller screen sizes too. With screens coming in all sorts of shapes and sizes, it’s impossible to define exactly where the fold occurs.

So the fold really is a myth, but isn’t there still something to be said for putting important stuff up front? Let’s return to newspapers for a moment. One of the fundaments of journalism is the inverted pyramid. This method of writing typically addresses the key questions of who, what, where, when and why in the first few sentences, followed by the bulk of the story with progressively less important detail towards the end. The inverted pyramid is hugely effective at conveying key information quickly, and also offers a great advantage when working in print. By ensuring that the end of the story contains only trivial details, it can easily be trimmed to fit within the constraints of a physical page layout without losing any key information

Yet by revealing all the crucial facts up front, the inverted pyramid means that there is less impetus to read to the end. Rewarding users with all the information up front takes any magic out of the journey of discovery. In contrast, traditional storytelling keeps disclosing crucial details to capture the reader’s attention throughout. We enjoy stories because they build suspense, drama and tension, instead of satiating our need for knowledge all in one go.

Aside from spoiling any surprises, cramming content in at the top of the page can also overwhelm users’ attention. Our cognitive capacity is limited and we can only process so much at a time. A densely packed, short page where the contents compete for attention is likely to impose a much greater cognitive burden on the user than a longer page that allows individual elements to be distinguished. It’s perhaps better to think of a page as a three-course meal, rather than a buffet.

If the content at the top of the page is enticing, then users will happily scroll down to find out more. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about delight as a sort of holy grail in user experience design. I think that delightful experiences possess exactly the kind of neurological tickles that are triggered by a carefully crafted set of rewards. Leaving a little mystery and revealing rewards along the way can lead to much more engaging online experiences. So while “above the fold” will always be prime real estate, some key content can – and sometimes should – be placed below.

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