Above the fold

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Just this year—yes, in the year two thousand eighteen—I was approached by a client asking if we should restructure their website so all the homepage content appeared at the very top. The idea was to avoid making users scroll.

This concept, known as putting things “above the fold,” is the Energizer Bunny of bad design myths—but one that I hadn’t heard in a while and had started to think was finally dead. So, let’s dive into this.

The term “above the fold” is an antiquity we’ve carried with us from the early days of the print industry. Historically, it referred to the content that appeared, literally, above the fold of a newspaper—basically, the sensational content that made people more likely to buy a newspaper.

In the age of the internet, we’ve adapted it to refer to the top 450-860 pixels (or so) of a web page. So, the question that will not die is, should all your content appear above the fold?

To be sure, the fold is still somewhat relevant. Modern humans have the attention span of…well, I don’t know. I literally don’t have the attention span to follow the simile through. It’s just bad. Really, really bad. I once saw a guy open 1,000 browser tabs and then walk away from his computer, start biking down the street, stop biking to talk to someone, leave his bike and the conversation to come back and read one of his browser tabs, and then start doing pushups and, yeah…that guy doesn’t exist. But WE ARE ALL THAT GUY.

The New York Times published in 2012 that “people will visit a Web site less often if it is slower than a close competitor by more than 250 milliseconds.” 250 milliseconds is an absurdly small unit of time. It’s about half as much time as it takes to blink, or approximately three flaps of a hummingbird’s wing.

At some point between the 1920s and the 2000s, it seems that the strategy morphed from “get people to buy a paper and turn to page three” to “put literally every piece of information in that space.”

Should I do that?

No. You really shouldn’t.

In 2007, ClickTale analyzed 80,000 page views and found that 76% of the time, a user scrolled to some extent, and 22% of users made it all the way to the bottom of the page. That was so long ago, though, and users have certainly become more comfortable with the internet. We now spend hours flicking through apps on our phones, endlessly swiping left, right, down and up. Up? Yeah, probably up too.

By 2013, a study of 25 million users’ scroll habits found that 70% of visitors saw the very top of the page they were viewing. That translates to 30% of viewers scrolling before the page has even loaded.

It’s a good idea to give people a strong idea of who you are within the initial view, or at least make a compelling enough argument to get them to scroll. I’m also a huge proponent of minimalism in content (and of working with writers and copyeditors to develop engaging content). The fewest words and images needed to communicate effectively with your audience is the optimal amount.

Let’s assume that the 24% of users from ClickTale’s 2007 study who didn’t scroll at all were definitely looking for all of the information in the top 450-860 pixels. That’s still a big if, but let’s operate on that assumption. If you did top-load your website with information, you’d almost certainly risk losing the 76% of users who do scroll to some extent. Will the people who couldn’t wait an extra 250 milliseconds for your site to load waste additional milliseconds reading small text or scanning a visually crowded layout? No.

How do I keep people engaged?

That’s a great question. One that probably has lots of answers. But here’s what I know:

1. Definitely pay attention to above-the-fold content, and keep it simple. If you’re concerned with that people won’t scroll at all, show a little of the content below by keeping your “fold” at around 80% of the browser’s height.

2. Don’t shy away from whitespace. Users have an easier time absorbing the content—and you are more likely to keep their attention—when you employ whitespace effectively. Narrower columns with plenty of room in the margins are great. So, use them! Let those words breathe a little.

3. Eliminate unnecessary content. Users tend to push away from visually polluted or cluttered websites. Ask yourself, Does this definitely add something? The less non-essential content to distract from your message, the better.

If you know of any additional, updated studies on this, or if you have any insight into why we’re still kicking around a 100+-year-old design myth, feel free to shoot me a message.

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Not rocket science, folks.

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