Scrolling, White Space, and The Dreaded Fold

   Customer Experience

Designers have dealt with feedback about white space and scrolling since what seems like the beginning of time. We know that users have no problem scrolling a well-designed page, and there is no shortage of research, articles, and resources to prove it. I’m not going to write about any of that today. Why? Because it doesn’t help solve the number one frustration that designers have when dealing with this topic — communicating with clients about design choices (including the dreaded “fold”).

Let’s see if any of this sounds familiar. The design review meeting is here, and you show your latest version of the beautiful, spacious dashboard you’ve been working on. The screen comes up. You explain the various details, spending extra time on some of the particularly clever parts, and… silence. Someone coughs uncomfortably. A stakeholder shifts in their seat. Finally, someone speaks up.

“I like it, but I’m worried about all this extra white space. People don’t like to have to scroll and that’s a fact. Am I right?” (Looks around the room, sees nods.) “Can we move everything above the fold?”

Le sigh.

Some immediate battle tactics come to mind. You could, if you were so inclined, offer to send out some research that shows why you are right and they are wrong. You could simply say that this idea is outdated and incorrect; we aren’t in 1998! Or you could decide that this, the 50th time hearing this feedback, is, in fact, the last straw, flip over the conference table, and quit your job.

Before you do any of that, remember:

  • Managers and stakeholders have been taught by each other, like a mantra, since the 1990s, that scrolling is an undesirable behavior. Repeated for years and years inside office conference rooms, it’s a belief–not just an opinion–and beliefs are hard to change.
  • Receiving this comment is unavoidable, and, more importantly, understandable because of the misinformation that keeps getting repeated among non-designers.
  • It’s your job as a designer to communicate about your design choices, and this just is an opportunity to do so.

Coming from a place of calm understanding, you are now equipped to have this conversation with the client. And here’s how you do it.

  • Check yourself before you wreck yourself. You’re about to stand up for your design decisions, and that’s great! But, before you do, ask yourself: is this page understandable upon its first load, even on smaller screens? Does the user know where they are and what to expect? Are they going to be enticed to scroll down? If so, then proceed.
  • Agree with the client. Get on their side. What we can all agree on is that the immediately visible part of a page is important and should be used effectively. But what exactly is effective? Go back to the goals of the project and think about how this page supports those goals, especially for business outcomes. Each page should offer an appropriate and effective experience. In some cases, it could be a certain function or call-to-action but, in other cases, it may be better used to show engaging or useful content which leads to action.
  • Propose that, in addition to using the top of the page, it’s our goal to create a design that encourages engagement and interaction, and allows the display of information effectively–not just what can be fit within a small space at the top. We want to be sure that our design allows for successful interactions and engagement. Users that engage with a design (such as scrolling) are much more likely to take additional actions. If, for example, we are trying to encourage a user to sign up for something, showing them the benefits in a clear and engaging way may well make them more likely to sign up after having seen that. So, the goal is to create a design that allows for successful interactions rather than to try and fit everything in the top. This is an excellent time to back up your point with some tactfully summarized (and shared, if needed) studies about scrolling.
  • Communicate the risks of assuming users won’t scroll. If we implement “fixes” to prevent scrolling, such as including a submit button above the content of a page, or making font sizes smaller, we are essentially devaluing the content of our product by minimizing it or making it more difficult to comfortably read. Ideas which seem good at first to prevent scrolling may actually negatively impact the experience. For example, including a “next” button above a page of content could cause users to make errors or skip important information on the page. It is much better to design something easily understandable (including the writing of the content itself) and then discover issues in usability testing, rather than to make assumptions about scrolling and try to fix the design preemptively.
  • Show what you are doing to ensure success. Talking through decisions and techniques used helps a client feel at ease that you aren’t disregarding their feedback; you are handling it! Know how the design encourages interaction. Yes, most users do scroll naturally even with no cues whatsoever, but you can encourage scrolling as a positive behavior, when needed, with a few simple techniques:
    • Avoid the use of full-screen images with no indications of additional content below. Don’t work against yourself.
    • Use the browser default scrollbar and don’t hide or change it.
    • Don’t put strong horizontal elements that look like footers near where common screen sizes vertically end. (You can always use analytics to find out your specific users’ most common screen sizes, so that your decision is driven by data)
    • By simply keeping content partially visible at the bottom of the page, users will scroll to view it.

    In fact, studies have shown that users spend more time looking around and just under the fold than they do at the top of a page, because the page top is often reserved for headers, headings, and navigation the user has already seen or assumes isn’t important. All of this can help to make the case for your design decisions.

Client still looking at you funny? Once you’ve got something that you believe works, suggest a quick (handful of users, one page, less than 1 minute each) guerilla usability test where a user is asked to complete an action or find information below the “fold.” Position the test as a normal part of your process, capturing much-needed feedback to improve the design, rather than a way to “prove” you are right. It doesn’t need to take much time at all to demonstrate success. Capture the time it takes to complete the task and record the user’s reaction to the page. Video record what they do and how they look doing it — not what they say after the fact. When prompted, most people will say they don’t think scrolling is good because they, too, have been told this mantra over and over. The proof is in the behavior.

As much as you might like to, you simply can’t win an argument (at least, not while holding together a good relationship) with a client by proving that they are wrong, or insisting they go your way. Don’t make it about “your way.” Instead, use these techniques to help the client understand and agree with the goals of the design rather than having an argument about misunderstood best practices.

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