Debunking the Myth of the Fold :: UXmatters

Creating and Delivering on Expectations

You have only a few seconds to engage visitors. Once visitors land on your Web site, they try to orient themselves and decide whether they’re interested in what you’re offering—and they won’t spend a lot of time doing it. In 2013, Chartbeat calculated that you have only four to nine seconds before the user begins to scroll. Let’s be honest. People’s attention spans haven’t gotten any longer.

At my company DUMBO, when structuring a Web page, we give ourselves two seconds as a benchmark. We have two seconds to make it clear to the user what a page is all about. For us to be able to do this, we have to be extremely clear about what we are promising the user. So we need to focus all our energy on communicating just one essential statement: why the user is there. Although it might be tempting to try to show the user everything you have to offer in those two seconds, you cannot. There’s no way.

Once we’ve communicated our one promise to the user, it’s our job to deliver on that promise further down the page. Keep in mind that both user attention and user density decrease significantly past the top 40% of the page. Therefore, when we structure this area of the page, we need to focus on what’s most important and leave out anything that isn’t crucial. We don’t have much time to address our key points, so we have to use the space wisely.

Once we’ve made this one promise, we do everything possible to deliver on it over the remainder of the page. With significantly diminished user attention and user density after the top 40% of the page, we must structure this area of the page in a way that communicates our key points effectively. The increased length of users’ stay below the fold suggests that they scroll to deepen their understanding of a topic.

Users’ Tendency to Scan

Users typically scan content. They do not generally read it. Even a limited analysis of your own Web site would demonstrate this. How do users navigate? How do they orient themselves when scrolling? Their scanning all or most of the content on any Web page is extremely rare. The results of another eyetracking study that the Nielsen Norman Group has recently published confirm this. Even when users do scan a page’s content in its entirety, they never do this in a completely linear fashion.

To satisfy this user behavior, you should generally address only one topic per line of text. You need to make it clear to users what they can expect from the content as quickly as possible. To achieve this, use familiar patterns or mental models. All visual impulses influence users’ scrolling behavior. For example, we have found that, on our Web site, a team slider interrupts vertical scrolling in 90% of cases and invites interaction. Therefore, we know that this pattern satisfies users’ expectations within the context of that page.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the user has actually read our content. What matters is that they have found the information they were seeking to accomplish their goal. But, if users can no longer anticipate what’s coming, they’ll be distracted by attempting to find a pattern they recognize. In either case, the probability of your losing them increases. You should do everything possible to prevent this.

Keeping and Directing the Flow

So, while we know that users are willing to scroll, we shouldn’t overestimate their eagerness to do so. As a UX designer, it’s your job to steer their attention and behavior and help them find what they need. For instance, once users reach the end of a page, make sure that they don’t have to scroll all the way back up to the top of the page to continue their journey.

You can do that because, at this moment, you already know a lot. You know the intention of the user because you’ve effectively communicated your page’s promise. You’ve offered incentives that have led users to deepen their knowledge of a topic. It’s now your chance to anticipate possible offers that would help you satisfy the user’s needs.

Now that you’ve gathered so much valuable information, you can actively shape the user’s journey. You must control the situation and influence the way the user experiences the brand or product. You want to keep the user active, not lose him. To achieve this, you must create additional incentives that keep the user in the flow.

Conclusion

“Scrolling is a continuation; clicking is a decision.”—Josh Porter, 2014

Because the space above the fold may be only the size of a business card, you must use it effectively to express the essence of the page or, for a home page, your entire site. The better you do this, the faster visitors can orient themselves. They’ll decide for themselves whether they need or want more. When you structure a page, your goal should always be that users never see the end of the page. They should be able to accomplish their goal before that happens.

What’s important to remember is that scrolling is not a metric by which you can generally assess the performance of a Web site. It is merely an indicator of users’ commitment and their need for more information. The only true indicator of performance is whether users are able to successfully achieve their concrete goals—their reasons for being on the Web site. The more clearly you perceive users’ goals, the better you can determine the corresponding KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). So your focus should be on defining a page’s or a site’s promise to the user. 

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