The long scroll

When did you last visit a website whose home page was based on a long scroll design? Probably only yesterday is my guess. There’s a lot of them about.

Long scrolling has a number of variants but essentially it’s when a page is significantly longer than a ‘standard web page’ (if you’ll allow me that loose definition). It may involve a page that is so long that it’s an entire website. It may make use of ‘infinite scroll’ where more content is loaded into the page with each turn of the mouse scroll wheel or each swipe of the screen. It may even be a page that loads up new content as it’s being published. There are indeed variations to this theme.

Long scroll pages are becoming so ubiquitous that you’d be forgiven for thinking that they are the new norm. All the more reason for examining some of their ins and outs.

Gestures replacing clicks

There’s no doubt that the increased use of tablets and the increasing size of mobile screens means that there is more swiping going on than ever before. It’s fast, it’s intuitive, it’s even fun. So let’s take a moment to put the long scroll in the scales and see how it balances.

Reasons for using a long scroll

  • If a site’s demographic is likely to include a lot of tablet and phone users, the long scroll might work nicely. Maybe it won’t be a good idea to use long scrolls on a site for very elderly people … but I’m aware of this being a blanket assumption.
  • When the progressive reveal of content introduces a little uncertainty and suspense, then a narrative can be nicely presented with a long scroll.
  • When the sales pitch is complex and a changing background image can help chunk the longer message into bite-sized segments, then a long scroll could come to the rescue.
  • When the visuals/graphics are essential to conveying the message, then an eye-catching succession of images with a low-density of text can be presented well with a long scrolling page.
  • With less text in the viewport at any one time, long scroll pages can be great for responsive design aimed at mobile screens.
  • Any combination of the above, for example when big text – but not much of it – can be better presented on a phone screen by requiring lots of swiping, as opposed to the same text being miniscule and cramped into the same, smaller page, then a case could be made for employing a long scroll page.

Reasons for not using a long scroll

Some of these might indeed be some of the positive reasons above, but inverted, simply because the context has changed. But this is my hit list of where the long scroll can fall down:

  • It’s potentially catastrophic for SEO if the long page is all there is on the site. You’ll have just one meta description, and just one h1 tag and the lot may take an age to load. There’d also be no internal links within the site. All your eggs would be in one basket if this super-long page was the only page of the website.
  • Users can be disoriented. This is especially the case if links in a long page jump to a different part of the same page. Users often don’t know where they are relative to where they were.
  • Users can be disoriented by not knowing how much more of the content there is to digest. The ability to scan ahead and estimate how long a presentation is before it’s finished means that it can be difficult to balance your stay on a site with your time available. (Remember David Ausubel’s advance organizers anyone?)
  • Who’s in charge here? Is it me – the user – or is it the site’s designer? (I like to think that a designer makes a user feel that they are in charge.)
  • What is where? When a page loads up and I can see all the main menu options in one rapid glimpse, I will probably know where I am and where I need to go. If I can’t and, instead, I have to scroll through everything before I get to the chunk of information I’m looking for, then I begin to wonder if I’ve been thrown in front of a Flash animation.
  • It never ends. If the scroll bar is repeatedly showing me that there is even more content coming up just when I thought I was reaching the end, I’ll pretty soon start to think I’m being toyed with.

Convince me that it’s appropriate, please!

The long scroll is a technique that can be really attractive and great fun, but I need to be convinced that its use is appropriate in a given situation. I don’t want to force users to feel that they are on a journey of discovery when that’s not what they signed up for. Equally, making people sit up and take notice by employing a novel design approach might be perfectly appropriate.

As ever, don’t employ a technique just because everyone else is employing it. Make the case for it first.