The Infinite Scroll Debate


Of course, infinite scroll isn’t really infinite.

Infinite scroll became a design practice about a decade ago. It is a web design technique where, as the user scrolls down a page, more content automatically and continuously loads at the bottom, eliminating the user’s need to click to the next page.

In earlier decades, the idea of having a long web page (nowhere near infinite!) was considered poor design. In fact, early web design was based on the design of print, especially, newspapers, which thought of the initial desktop screen view without scrolling as the same as the “above the fold” for a newspaper.

A 2006 study by Jakob Nielsen found that 77% of visitors to a website do not scroll, and therefore only see the portion of the website that is above the fold. Some designers still believe the “fold” is worth considering today, but the move to small screens and mobile design has changed how we define that “fold.”

What are the advantages of the infinite scroll? It allows people a frictionless browsing experience without having to go to a “next page” link, arrow or button. Without a end point or bottom , people tend to keep scrolling. Therefore, this scroll is designed to pull you in.

It is a bit addictive – a rabbit hole and some people warn that it has psychological and even societal effects. The term “addictive technology” is sometimes considered antithetical to “ethical design.”

In 2019, U.S. Senator Josh Hawley introduced the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act which would outlaw social media platforms from using certain practices, including infinite scroll.

Infinite scroll can also make navigation especially difficult for users with disabilities.

One typical design feature – the footer – is diminished, if not eliminated in the infinite scroll design. This area typically contained “About” and “Contact” links and perhaps an entire menu and information that was carried over to the rest of the site. It is a long scroll back up to the top of an infinite page to get to the main menu.

Many users know how to jump back to the top of a long page, but not everyone, and it can be frustrating to a new viewer.

It’s easier to “get lost” on a long page. Long pages also load slower, which is an issue for anyone on a slower connection.

So, should you use infinite scroll? It is a consideration. And a compromise is longer but not infinite pages. I find most designers are not recommending it to clients, but be informed.

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Miller’s Law and the Magical Number Seven

7There is definitely some psychology to design. And UX design is definitely about organization. There is a principle of organization that comes psychology that I have seen written about in terms of product and service design. It is Miller’s Law.

It was put forward in 1956 – long before UX and web design was a thing – in a paper by cognitive psychologist George A. Miller. In his well-known paper (at least in psych circles), titled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” he proposed a limit to memory which is now called Miller’s Law.

Miller proposed that the number of perceptual ‘chunks’ an average human can hold in working memory (a component of short-term memory) is 7. He found that memory performance is great five or six different stimuli but declines aft so let’s say 5-9.

If the mind can handle ~7 bits of information when completing a task that requires cognitive effort, then designers need to keep that in mind when designing. That would apply to completing forms and surveys. It applies to lists in menus and lots of other tasks that might be presented to users. What happens when a catalog page shows 15 items?

Miller believed that all of us “chunk” information and that if the information is organized in categories no larger than 9, but preferably ~5 chunks, memory is best served.

A related find – which I learned in a writing course – is about primacy, and recency effect (also known as the serial position effect). These two terms describe how we remember items placed at the beginning and end of an experience, and if we forget some it’s likely they will be in the middle. Combining this with Miller’s Law and you would say that the bigger the number of items, the more middle to be forgotten.