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Designers, Let’s Chat about Infinite Scrolling

I keep a running list of blog post ideas. As I find myself facing interesting design, project management, or interpersonal problems to solve, I jot them down. The hope is that one day, I will craft a nice blog post out of each of them. For over two years, I have had an item on this list labeled “Why Infinite Scrolling is the Devil.” I’ve avoided the topic because I hoped the design pattern would fade away. It hasn’t.

Designers, we need to have a chat.

As you might gather from that snarky label, I have strong negative feelings about the interaction pattern. But here’s the deal—it’s not that an infinitely scrolling page is a bad thing in and of itself. It’s that this pattern is so frequently misused that I often find myself angered when I encounter it.

So let’s talk about the pros and cons of infinite scrolling, when it is appropriate to use, and when it is not.

What Is Infinite Scrolling?

What exactly is this evil interaction pattern? According to the Nielson Norman Group, infinite scrolling is a “web-design technique that loads content continuously as the user scrolls down the page, eliminating the need for pagination.”

If you’ve ever interacted with just about any social media platform, you’ve experienced infinite scrolling.

When to Utilize Infinite Scrolling

Infinite scrolling is not entirely terrible. There’s a reason the pattern was developed, and there are specific use cases where it makes sense to apply the technique. Let’s start by talking about the positives.

1. Infinite scrolling engages users for long periods of time.

If one of the goals of the software you’re creating is to achieve long user engagement sessions, it might be worth considering infinite scrolling.

For example, how many times have you told yourself, “Just five more minutes” while scrolling through Instagram, only to realize that you’ve spent 10+ minutes aimlessly exploring? Because there is no end to the content, people typically have a hard time walking away from the software.

2. Infinite scrolling facilitates discovery.

How many times have you unintentionally discovered an interesting account on Instagram? You were scrolling along and ended up down one rabbit hole or another, which led to an account that you’ve now been following for years, run by a person with whom you feel a connection.

It’s likely that this discovery wouldn’t have happened if you were presented with an “end” of the content in Instagram. Because of this, infinite scrolling—when used in the appropriate context—can facilitate exploration and discovery.

3. Infinite scrolling is preferred to tapping on mobile devices.

On mobile devices, people are already conditioned to scroll. It is often easier to scroll than tap while holding a phone in one hand, especially as phone sizes get larger and larger. Considering this, infinite scrolling will often be an easier pattern for mobile users to navigate than a pattern that requires many taps.

Additionally, tapping requires users to make a choice. They need to process the choices that are presented and then choose which button to tap. Scrolling often happens before the user has time to process a decision. This ties back to why it is so easy to spend heaps of time in an app that utilizes infinite scrolling, such as Instagram.

Infinite scrolling isn’t all bad.

If you look back at the three positive examples of infinite scrolling I listed, you might notice a theme. All of the examples referred to social media, which is often engaged with via mobile devices.

Infinite scrolling works out great when the user doesn’t have a task-oriented goal in mind. If my goal is simply to unwind and tinker on my iPhone, infinite scrolling is a great design pattern to utilize. It allows me to continue viewing content without having to work hard to get it.

When to Avoid Infinite Scrolling

All right, we’ve established that infinite scrolling works well for social media, or applications where the user does not have a time constraint associated with their goals. So what are the negatives of infinite scrolling?

1. Infinite scrolling gives no indication of progress.

If I am trying to complete a specific task, such as viewing all the available styles of Dr. Martens available for purchase on a website, infinite scrolling could be frustrating. In this example, I want to know what all of my options are before I make a choice. However, infinite scrolling does not make it clear how close I am to the end of the list. How do I know when to stop?

2. Infinite scrolling eliminates wayfinding.

Let’s say I keep scrolling through that list of Dr. Martens. I then decide that the fun pair of purple holographic boots I saw earlier are of interest to me. How do I get back to them? Sure, I can keep scrolling up, and hopefully I’ll find them. However, if I’ve been scrolling for a long time, tracking where I’ve been can be incredibly cumbersome.

In this example, a more traditional pagination approach would make it easier for me to back up through the listing of boots.

3. Infinite scrolling can create performance issues.

Let’s say I make my way back up to those purple holographic Dr. Martens, and then I decide, “Nah, I liked those traditional black ones more.” I know they are much farther down the list than the purple ones, so I start scrolling quickly. In this example, I might scroll quicker than the site can process, leading to some lag time. I’m now annoyed that I had to work so hard to relocate the boots, and I have to sit around and wait on top of it.

In a world where people expect content and results quicker and quicker, frustration with lag time like this can lead to the loss of a sale.

So where does the evil come in?

The negative examples of infinite scrolling we explored all involved e-commerce. However, more specifically, they involved a clear task. If your intended users are hoping to achieve goal-oriented tasks, infinite scrolling will not be the best solution.

Conclusion

If you’re building a time-based platform, such as a social media app, infinite scrolling is likely a good way to suck in users and make discovery easy for them. However, if the users of your software have goal-oriented tasks in mind, please do us all a favor and stay away from infinite scrolling!