As web technologies continue to improve, so are the ways in which we experience the internet. In the 23 years of the web, many trends have come and gone. We’ve seen Page Counters come and go, Flash rise and fall, and we’re currently seeing Flat Design’s minimalism take the fore at the expense of skeuomorphic and ‘realistic’ 3D effects. The web is ever-evolving. Trends come and go, this is only natural – as we see in the world of fashion. Unlike fashion however, the web’s evolution has much to do with technological change.
Devices have got faster, bandwidth has increased, and our browsing methods have evolved from desktop to mobile. At the heart of these changes has been the method in which we structure our content.
Historically, pagination ruled on the web. Originally skeuomorphed from physical books of old, pagination saw seamless adoption to the internet. Pages have been used in centuries in books in order to spread content and link content that otherwise can’t be contained on a single page. Books exist because they are so much more convenient than a long scroll. Pages allowing greater compactness and ease of use.
The same thing applied to the internet’s early days. Bandwidth was at a premium, effectively creating a maximum page length. What do do we do when we run out of room on a page? Create a new one. By splitting up our content into separate web pages we decrease the stress on the system – resulting in content consisting of multiple web pages linked together – much like a book.
Things have changed however. In more recent times, pagination has fallen. We no longer see it on articles. One of the new techniques to rise out of it’s ashes is infinite scrolling.
Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram. Aside from being a collection of the largest social networks around, they all have one thing in common: They all prime examples of Infinite Scrolling. Why?
With the vast amount of data contained in each, designers need a technique to manage page load times. Left unchecked, loading thousands of tweets at one time would be disastrous to the user experience – not to mention the monotony of endlessly hitting ‘next page’.
In comes Infinite scrolling. The basic functionality is that, as the user scrolls through the content, more content is loaded automatically. This creates a seamless – ‘infinite’ – list of data. Infinite scrolling ensures the user can be shown as much data as possible. Whilst also ensuring this data is provided in bitesize chunks, easy for whatever device being used to handle.
The endlessness of Twitter
As mentioned the benefits of this technique best lend themselves to sites that involve long lists of data. It taps into a user’s ‘lazy’ mindset, enabling them to endlessly scroll with very little interaction. Spending more time absorbing content and less finding it. Advantageous for content that streams endlessly where the content belongs on the same level of hierarchy.
Why still use pagination?
Now that we have the technology – and bandwidth – for infinite scrolling, why do we still bother with Pagination?
Google Trends – Pagination still going strong
Not only does this technique – also referred to as paging – save bandwidth, it has numerous other benefits. Paging allows content to be organised and structured effectively due to it being segmented, much like the chapters of a book. This segmentation provides a further benefit when analytics are involved. With content split up into separate pages, it is possible to discover on which page interest is lost and thus exactly where the content is going wrong.
Finally, Advertising plays a subtle role. More pages = more advertising space = More potential income.
User Experience Consequences
When we look further into the affect each technique has on the User’s Experience, we find even more reason why both techniques can stand alone as individual strategies.
The main criticisms of Infinite Scrolling are psychological. It has a tendency to drown users in an informational abyss, with no clear end in sight. Visitors will often have an expectation to navigate through links, but this is compromised. Instead content is pushed to them automatically, and that sense of control is lost.
It’s not over yet…
It is a fallacy to think links get in the way of a successful user experience. Users don’t mind clicking, provided each link is meaningful and leads towards their intended goal. And, as HCI studies have shown, providing a simple end point provides the user with the control they desire.
In contrast, pagination entails a clear beginning and end point. This brings with it a ‘happy’ sense of completion. A smaller page makes for fewer choices. As a result, everything is less overwhelming and ‘in your face’. We can more effectively lead our users to where we want them to be, and the user knows where they are. Google has refrained from introducing infinite scrolling to their web results search for this very reason. By having users navigate set pages of links, the user knows how many results have been tried. They know when it is no longer worth searching. They know when to give up – relieving frustration.
Infinite scrolling results in large volumes of content being presented to the user. This overwhelms and paralyzes user with choice (see The Paradox of Choice). Indecision lowers click rates, conversion rates. Viewers may see more but they won’t necessarily interact with more.
Lastly, anyone with experience of infinite scrolling will be able to testify to this. It breaks the scroll bar. Page length is displayed inaccurately. As the page become increasingly longer, the scroll bar becomes increasingly smaller, until it hits it’s limit. Then what? It doesn’t accurately represent the page. People may not use the bar for navigation, opting for the scroll wheel, but it remains an essential tool for judging page location. For judging how much of a page is left. It loses this purpose. Users left confused. Are they at the bottom of the page, or aren’t they?
When to use which?
With so much negative flak for infinite scrolling you’d have reason to doubt it’s usefulness. However, both pagination and infinite do have their places on the web. Infinite scrolling is certainly on the rise, yet pagination retains its niche. It simply suits certain pieces of content more appropriately.
- Goal orientated tasks: Take an Ecommerce shop entrance. It is impossible to find products without some sort of filtering or sorting. Hence, we split content into categories. Let the user choose their category then move on to more extensive lists of information. This removes the paradox of choice – albeit temporarily. Speeding up the shopping process.
Usabilla’s tool creation
- Linear processes: A creation tutorial for example. Creation is a set process, and we can segment this in order to simplify it. Guiding the user through each stage. Further benefits arise in allowing us to save each stage of our process. Checkpointing our users, and avoiding the potential for mistakes and losses to occur. The generic checkout process is another great example.
World of Warcraft’s forum navigation
- Organisation: Pagination automatically implies hierarchy. Search results structured by pages designates the relevancy, as in forums. Not only does it organise this hierarchy, it provides us with knowledge of where we are within in. Just as with the Google example earlier, we can’t get lost if we know where we are, and we can jump to where we want to go.
- Articles: Though not quite ‘infinite’, articles like this remove pagination in order to show content in one long list. This keeps the reader captivated and immersed, removing the break in reading that a page change brings. That page change brings a risk that the reader reaches the end of the first page and no longer feels the need to continue. With longer page length, visitors may not read all of the content, but may at least scroll through all of it. Consuming more in the process.
- Social Media: We touched upon this earlier. The two go hand in hand. The strength of social media is its power to distract from whatever you should be working on, and have you mindlessly scroll through heaps of content. This content requires little interaction other than viewing – there is no great need for conversions. The paradox of choice is irrelevant in this situation; consumers can mindlessly, lazily, consume for as long as they wish!
- Timelines: Very much linked to social media, as this is how we see it implemented on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many more. Content can be organised with the most relevant at the top – this is really the only way to organise content on an infinite page. It works so well here because users can scroll this list of information until they reach where they were last time on the list, providing the cue to stop (hopefully). This is why pagination is irrelevant in such a situation. Users keep on top of the content themselves and don’t require feedback on where they are.
Combining the two techniques:
We are even beginning to see examples of combining the two techniques – allowing sites to take advantage of the benefits of both. Holding onto the linear journey of pagination whilst taking advantage of the infinite’s lazy scrolling.
A great example of this is SoleilNoir.net. Taking advantage of Parallax scrolling, we have a navigation bar on the right. This relays our progress on the page as we scroll whilst also allowing us to directly jump. We avoid the issues of broken sidebars and getting lost in the content, bringing a visual navigation aid to the single page experience. The page remains segmented, but is continuous and seamless in it’s transitions.
It is fair to say then, that both hold their own online. Technological change may have reduced pagination’s hold on the web, but only a fool would say it has been lost to new technology. If anything, it has adapted to the world around it.