Everybody Scrolls.

Our first piece of ongoing research into usability best practices tackles scrolling.

Rebecca Gordon
December 3, 2014

Evolve your design too quickly and you’ll leave your users behind. Design too slowly and your users will do the same to you. It’s crucial to keep design practices aligned with the way users really interact with digital products and interfaces. To help, Huge’s UX and research teams are collaborating to test conventional and emerging design and usability standards. 

UX + Research.

In each installment of this series, researchers at Huge will isolate and test a basic design element. By testing with a broad cohort of users rather than specific segments, we can ground our findings in widely shared user needs and expectations.

Many of these elements have been around for years and have persisted unquestioned even as behavior and technologies have evolved. Others have sparked polarizing debate recently as their implications for responsive design, connected devices and other digital trends have become more evident. We’ve also identified a third set of elements, like social icons, that lack precedent altogether. In these cases, designers are winging it -- and it’s time to test improvisational wisdom and produce actionable findings.

In the process, we are also building a library of research on research. Because these tests are quick and focused on a single design element, we can maximize the number of respondents in a short timeline -- a perfect opportunity to try new and unconventional research methods and assess their pros and cons.

Sometimes, the results have been inconclusive or seemingly obvious – but we hope these kinds of granular insights will produce a more adaptable, up-to-date, and honest canon of best practices for user experience today.

Scrolling below the fold.

UX designers are divided about how essential above-the-fold placement – that is, positioning so that users can see content without scrolling down – really is. Chartbeat found that “66% of attention on a normal media page is spent below the fold.” In contrast, the Nielsen Norman Group showed that “users spend 80% of their time looking above the fold.”

We wanted to know how page design impacts these user behaviors and to what extent visual cues help users scroll below the fold.

To find out, we conducted user testing with 48 participants over 3 days. We did so using unmoderated remote testing to see how this less conventional methodology would compare to mediated testing, our usual approach.

We tested four design versions:

  •  A control image, with no visual cues to scroll below the fold.
  •  A scroll arrow that cues users to scroll down.
  •  A short image, where users had to scroll to see above-the-fold content in entirety.
  •  An animated image with a moving element to lead viewers below the fold.
Scrolling Research

Almost all participants scrolled, no matter what.

Recommendations.

We learned that participants almost always scrolled, regardless of how they are cued to do so – and that’s liberating. While it’s hard to make universal recommendations, we’d suggest that designers use the cue that works best in its context.

Designers should choose cues for scrolling based on the content, the business category and the overall design. Does the content feature block text, images or video? Is the site for ecommerce, editorial or news? How do visual cues integrate with existing design elements? All of these variables will affect the optimum placement and effectiveness of scrolling cues.

What we learned about unmoderated remote testing.

As for the testing methodology, we found both pros and cons. Under optimal conditions, unmoderated remote testing is both efficient and effective. Ideally, the stimulus should be fully developed -- otherwise, people make decisions based on things that don’t work. Because there’s no moderator, the test should be task-oriented to give participants direction. Finally, display uniformity can’t be an issue.

A note on our approach and research limitations. 

When clients ask us to conduct usability testing, our approach is pointed. We test how specific segments of users interact with a particular interface or product. Our client work is effective at aligning business goals with user expectations because it is focused on and customized to the use case at hand.

But more general insights, applicable to broad cross-sections of users and a wide range of projects, are invaluable. A definitive but adaptable set of principles based on empirical evidence should serve as a baseline for design decisions. 

These findings are limited by the context, content and task in this study. Further studies are needed to confirm how other variables may influence scrolling behavior.

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