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Infinite Scroll: A Bad Idea for Usability and Accessibility

Though a common interaction on the web, infinite scroll causes problems for accessibility, usability, and performance. The cost to work around them is usually not worth the tradeoffs, and in the end, it can have a negative impact on the user experience.

Many of our clients request infinite scroll as an interaction pattern for displaying long lists of items like news stories, events, or images in a photo gallery. While it plays a prominent role on social media sites like Twitter and Pinterest (plus, we agree — it just looks cool!), there’s a good deal of research that shows it can be detrimental to an informational site like a university’s or a health center’s.

Infinite scroll can cause numerous problems with accessibility, usability, and performance. Here are some of the reasons why we typically don’t recommend it.

Infinite Scroll Harms Usability in Information-Seeking Tasks

Most of the sites we work with are informational — they’re focused on serving up content that helps users discover, enroll in, and complete programs that are educational or healthcare-related. Users of these sites are searching for information to help them make an important life decision that’s often a big investment, or they’re trying to complete a complex task with many steps and situational instructions. Infinite scroll is a nifty interaction pattern for sites that want to encourage leisure browsing and increase time on page, but for users who are trying to find, learn, or do something, it often gets in their way.

Leading experts and researchers in web usability the Nielsen Norman Group recommend against infinite scrolling for most websites, particularly “if site visitors want to achieve goal-oriented activities, such as when they need to backtrack or find specific information quickly.” They describe the consequences that we often see in our own usability testing:

“With pagination, there is a beginning and an end. People can anticipate the effort required to scan the page. There is a happy sense of completion when a page is reviewed. Pagination gives people control to decide whether or not to continue to the next page. The choices on smaller pages are easier to evaluate because fewer options feel less overwhelming.

“With infinitely long pages, people may feel paralyzed by the sheer volume of content or the number of choices and not click anything. People may view but not act. Infinite scrolling may support browsing behavior, but it can cause inaction (and lower conversions), which is the opposite of what most website makers want.”

Infinite Scroll Can Break Functionalities on Your Site

Infinite scroll can be good for users casually browsing for A thing, but for those looking for THE thing, or THE right answer to their question, it’s an obstacle. And worse, it can actually undermine some expected navigational and performance-related elements of your site.

In testing, we see users consistently rely on the footer for important task-based items like addresses and other contact info, employment and “about us” links, and even “donate online” forms and transactions. But with infinite scroll, the footer is rendered useless because users can never quite get all the way down to it.

In the article linked above, the Nielsen Norman Group also points out how infinite scrolling disables the scroll bar:

“The worst offense of infinite scrolling on the desktop is that it plays a nasty trick on users. Infinite scrolling breaks the scroll bar by causing it to display the page length inaccurately. Believe it or not, people still use the scroll bar. People rely on scroll bar to tell them how much effort is left. It’s not nice to tell people that they’re almost done when they’re not. Play nicely.”

Adam Silver has put together a terrific Medium post that summarizes why infinite scroll and its cousin Show More aren’t always a good idea. He lists some of the reasons above, as well as more functionality issues like how they degrade page load performance because of the extra burden they place on device memory.

Infinite Scroll Interferes with Accessibility

Users who rely on keyboards to navigate find infinite scrolling websites a challenge to use. They need to be able to jump between sequential page elements or get to a link in your footer (e.g., “Contact Us”) using a keystroke. With pagination, or even longer pages of fixed content, they can navigate up and down pages definitively and browse back and forward between them. But if your website presents a never-ending parade of content that’s always loading more, they can’t.

Wordpress.org’s Accessibility Team recommends against infinite scroll in their development best practices because of its “many significant accessibility issues,” including:

  • You can’t go back to your previous place using the browser’s “back” button.
  • You can’t easily get to the footer or the last items in the infinite scroll.
  • There’s a large memory footprint if loading big images.
  • It doesn’t work without Javascript.
  • You can’t access elements with keyboard only.
  • There’s no consistent audible feedback or instructions about how infinite scrolling works for assistive technologies.
  • There’s no URL to a specific place on the page.

Many Industry Leaders Aren’t Using Infinite Scroll

While “other people are doing it” is never a good enough reason on its own to adopt or exclude a usability practice, it’s interesting to note that some of the web’s largest companies either don’t use infinite scroll or tried it and found it wasn’t doing them any favors.

Etsy, the online marketplace for artists and crafters, found that implementing infinite scroll on their website led to shoppers looking at fewer results and ultimately making fewer purchases from search.

In its extensive research on e-commerce sites, the Baymard Institute concluded that “infinite scroll should never be used for the search results.” They go on to recommend a very carefully implemented “Load More” button — however, pointing out that “if you don’t have the technical resources to support proper back-button behavior, we recommend not experimenting with ‘Load More’ at all, but rather sticking with the inferior pagination model.”

So, Should You Keep Scrolling?

If you’re serving up content that’s intended to delight and entertain users — especially if you’re designing a mobile app, or your website’s chief platform of consumption is mobile phones — then the accessibility and functionality tradeoffs might still make infinite scroll worth considering in your design. But if you have a lot of desktop users trying to answer questions or get things done, give them a break and avoid it. Not everything shiny and new is a good business idea!

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