Although it’s been years since the controversy first exploded, I still find myself in debates about whether “the fold” matters on a regular basis. This is a concept that scares many online business owners silly, prompting unfortunate design decisions that can be far more dangerous to sales than burying the lead.

If you’re scratching your head, let me give you a quick orientation to the controversy.┬áThe fold is a concept carried over from newspaper layouts. When a newspaper is displayed on a news stand, only the stories “above the fold” are visible to people passing by. If the headline articles aren’t interesting, that issue of the paper is much less likely to attract buyers, and the newspaper’s profits will suffer. Thusly, the most important, tantalizing, sale-driving content had to be crammed above the fold as often as possible.

Many online business owners share a similar mentality, and want to make certain as much of their site is visible “above the fold” as possible.

Here’s the catch: A newspaper is printed on paper with known dimensions. But a website? All bets are off.

Here’s a small sampling of what goes into determining which parts of your site are visible without scrolling:

  • Monitor dimensions
  • Monitor resolution
  • Choice of browser
  • Zoom
  • Number of toolbars installed in the browser

And the icing on the cake: Most people don’t browse the web with the browser window maximized, so the dimensions each user sees the site presented in can be random even if you DO know all of the above information.

Early studies (starting in ’97) reinforced this fear of the fold by showing that most people at the time did not scroll, and would miss any content that wasn’t at the top of the page. However, followup studies just three years later showed a drastic increase in the number of people that will scroll, with the number rising with each subsequent follow up. The web – and its plethora of ever smaller access devices, like smart phones – is rapidly reshaping the way that people interact with digital media.

Here’s the really interesting part: Although there IS a bias toward clicking links at the very top of a page, people are also vastly more likely to click on a link at the very bottom of a page than they are to interact with something in the center of a page. Clearly, people are scrolling. They just don’t always stop before they get to the bottom.

Why? In my experience, users are becoming accustomed to the loose conventions that most web design has come to follow. You generally know what sort of information you will find in the header of a site, and what sort of information can be found in the footer.

To understand this concept, imagine a hypothetical user. We’ll call her Mary. Mary wants to buy a new hat, and she has navigated to an online apparel store. Now she needs to find the hat section.

I think you already instinctively know what Mary is going to do next: She is going to use the navigation links at the very top of the page to go to the store’s section for accessories.

No scrolling whatsoever — by a user who already knew exactly what she wanted.

Now imagine Mary has purchased her hat, but the shop sends her the wrong color. She visits the site again, and immediately scrolls all the way to the foot of the page — the standardized location for small print and contact information. Again, she’s managed to find exactly what she needed without looking at a dollop of “other” information provided on the site. When Mary had a specific navigational goal in mind, it mattered not at all what was above or below the fold, so long as Mary could predict where she would find what she needed.

In my experience it is standardization, not the fold, that creates this huge bias toward interacting with content at the top and bottom of pages.

Yes: Use your two seconds of user attention wisely, and be selective about how you prioritize and present your information. But don’t cram everything you possibly can into the first 600px of the page. This does nothing but clutters the page and confuses your visitors.

Breathe easy. Make sure your navigation is clear and easy to use. How much or little of your site a user sees when they first hit the page is totally out of your control. If they want what you have, they will scroll.

Resources:

  • http://www.useit.com/alertbox/scrolling-attention.html
  • http://blog.clicktale.com/2006/12/23/unfolding-the-fold/
  • http://blog.clicktale.com/2007/12/04/clicktale-scrolling-research-report-v20-part-2-visitor-attention-and-web-page-exposure/
  • http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/blasting-the-myth-of
  • http://designfestival.com/the-fold-exists-but-does-it-matter/
  • http://boagworld.com/design/fearing-the-fold/
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