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Infinite scrolling: A web-design trend that is here to stay?

Infinite scrolling: A web-design trend that is here to stay?

Each year, round about this time, the global web design community gazes into their crystal balls to predict which hot trends look set to take the year by storm – and to decide which remnants of the past will fade into obscurity.

Today, infinite scrolling is a hot trend which can be seen everywhere on the web, from online stores to the biggest social networks.  Despite only recently rising to a position of prominence, this technique is already dividing opinion.

Will infinite scrolling be a short-lived fad, or is it destined to become the new de-facto standard for presenting web content?

What is infinite scrolling?

Each day, the average web-user processes a huge amount of information on a daily basis: But whilst in the past, this content would require copious amounts of clicking to get through, today’s user will typically scroll through this content with little or no need for any further input: Infinite scrolling is what makes this possible.

Instead of splitting content up into bite-sized chunks across a number of very specific, focussed pages, infinite scrolling instead pulls through a stream of content to a ‘bottomless’ page, or series of pages, which populate as the user scrolls down, loading new content in the background to create uninterrupted streams of content.

Infinite scrolling pages can enhance the user-experience

The famous ‘content is king’ mantra is still uttered on a daily basis by a huge portion of the global web-design community.  How that content is presented is just as important as the content itself, as far as usability is concerned.

Think about what it’s like to browse an online store with thousands of products…

Let’s say that you have identified and successfully navigated to a specific category, for example ‘shirts’ – and maybe you have even applied a few filters, like ‘size’, ‘colour’ and ‘brand’.  By this stage, if hundreds of products are returned, conventional wisdom would dictate that these should be spread over a number of pages, to make loading quick and navigation manageable: But if you are looking to browse the full range within your search criteria, instead of locating an individual item, this methodology can break your flow, somewhat.

With today’s advances in processing power, coding techniques and internet connection speeds, it now becomes possible to instead display all of the relevant results returned in the above scenario using infinite scrolling: This is particularly useful for users who are viewing a site using a small touchscreen device in portrait mode, where the process of tapping on different page numbers to load multiple pages could be slow and cumbersome compared against simply scrolling through all products in the selected category on a single, ‘bottomless’ page.

Infinite scrolling has its drawbacks

Think about how terrible it would be if your favourite search engine couldn’t quickly and efficiently return an accurate list of the most relevant results for the queries that you entered into it.  Imagine what it would be like if those results were just a massive, seemingly endless list that scrolled on into oblivion.  Then visualise just what it would feel like to click on one of those links and be faced with a website which consists of yet another massive, scrolling stream of content that you’d have to sift through to find exactly what you are looking for.  It would be a usability car-crash – and it is just one reason why Google still has pagination at the bottom of all its search engine results pages.

Whilst infinite scrolling is great in limited doses: For example, to browse products on a website, view an image gallery or to take a quick glance through a social media stream – it can also be truly awful for usability in a number of serious ways:

  • It can cause the user to lose their bearings.  Trying to navigate ‘back’, for example isn’t as useful as it would be on a site that is broken up into small, clearly defined pages, since each infinite-scrolling page could potentially pull through a massive stream of content that will have to be sifted through.
  • Users can end up missing out on important content, since this can be buried deep within a ‘never-ending’ page, instead of being presented on a dedicated page of its own.
  • Infinite scrolling can make return visits to a website a real chore – users will have to plough through tons of content just to find a relevant snippet of information that they might be seeking, instead of simply jumping straight to the appropriate page.

Infinite scrolling: Is it going to stick around?

It is clear that infinite scrolling looks set to be a big part of the online landscape for many years to come: Social networks, image galleries, news websites and other sources of constantly updated information will most likely continue to use this technique on their responsive websites, at least when users view their content on smaller displays.

Meanwhile, search engines and the vast majority of websites will still use pagination and hierarchical, clearly defined page and navigation structures.

In the end, it is most likely that both approaches will continue to operate in tandem, with web-designers having to make the choice about which way to go when it comes to planning out website content.

About Graham Lyons

Graham is the SEO and Social Media Marketing Manager at Cozy Digital and the editor of the Cozy Digital Blog as well as contributing content for most of our social outlets like Facebook, Twitter and G+. Graham has been working in, and writing for the SEO / SMM industry since 2001 and is still as dedicated and passionate today as he was when he opened his first Website Design, Ecommerce and SEO company in 2004. You can connect with Graham and Cozy Digital via the social media links below:

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