Are the days of “above the fold” web design layouts a thing of the past?

The days of above the fold web design layouts a thing of the past

The old mantra used to be that content and imagery on web pages had to be “above the fold”. This recently has been deemed by many as an antiqued idea from the very earliest days of the web when people weren’t really aware just what the Internet was actually for or how to use the browser. Back then, the notion of “above the fold” web design mattered but that was way back in 1999. Today however, people know exactly what a browser is and they know just how to use it too. The term “above the fold” originates from the newspaper industry where the positioning of a story or image above the fold undoubtedly increased readership. Newspapers were folded and displayed flat meaning a compelling headline or photograph would increase sales. As a result, “above the fold” was born.

When the web was in its very early days, newcomers weren’t all too sure how a browser worked. Monitors were extremely small and the notion of the World Wide Web was all too much to comprehend for some. The idea of above the fold was therefore applied to web design. As the screens were small, only things within the boundary of the home page were deemed to be above the fold in web design. Back in 1999, this meant that something was only visible if it were placed within the 800x600 pixel dimensions of the home page subsequently making it more likely to be read, seen or clicked on. AOL further cemented the popularity of this concept of web design as its standard interface was 800x600, meaning everything was chopped up to ensure it was contained within the displayed area in order to keep visibility high. Due to this notion, articles were placed across multiple pages. If you wanted to read on further, you simply clicked onto the next page.

Above the fold doesn’t matter as much as it used to

We realise this comment is likely to cause a few heads to turn, a few people to suddenly become breathless but it’s ok. Visitors to your website aren’t going to run screaming from your homepage simply because they have to scroll. The reason for this is down to the explosion of the giant desktop monitor and the mobile web. Screen size changes constantly from one person to the next. Whilst one may be browsing an entire page on their 27 inch screen, another may be viewing it from their 3 inch smartphone and because of this, scrolling is a requirement for most. The fold it would seem has vanished; it has ceased to be. A number of studies have been carried out on the “above the fold” theory and they have all concluded that users of today will indeed scroll. A user-centric design firm here in the UK, CX Partners, has carried out a lot of research using eye tracking and has consistently found the so-called “fold” to no longer be relevant. In fact, their findings actually revealed that less content above the fold would encourage further exploration beneath the fold. They also found that if the design gave a tease to more exciting information below, scrolling was almost guaranteed as a result. What we’re talking about here is a bridge of sorts. In essence, if you have something to bridge the fold then people will scroll in order to see more. What’s more, people now fully recognise that scroll bars indicate more content for them to enjoy. They also now recognise that a scroll bar can give an indication as to the length of the page. Evaluation of click data has also found to support this notion. MilissaTarquini, the director of user interface design and information architecture at AOL, writes for about her personal experiences. In her article “Blasting the myth of the fold” she provides real world evidence to fully support the concept that the fold simply doesn’t matter. One of the most interesting things she does mention however is the click data for TMZ. In her article she notes how the links at the very bottom of TMZ’s long pages are usually the most clicked upon links on the website which would indicate that users are more than willing to scroll long pages if the content is enticing enough.

Things above the fold must still be important

Now, it’s of course a no brainer to proclaim that things above the fold must still be interesting and important. The “above the fold” web design argument is simply an argument against scrolling itself as well as longer content on pages. The whole mantra behind “above the fold” design was to constrainweb design to certain screen dimensions but research has still shown that compelling content along with obvious visual clues that indicate more content exists below is still highly important.

Where is the fold?

The question is for some however, where is the fold exactly? Well, back in the 90’s when the vast majority of screens were 15 inches, designers knew they had les than 800x600 pixel dimensions to work with and as a result designed for 640x480. Today however, high-resolution monitors are more standard practice and as a result, aspect ratios vary a large amount. Desktop monitors can span to over 30 inches; you can even connect your computer to your LCD and plasma screens of 55 inches and more. Laptops come in all manner of sizes with different resolutions too and then there are of course smartphones and tablets.Therefore locating the fold isn’t necessarily an easy task today. The “fold” was once described as being at the very bottom of the page however if you open your browser on a 27 inch monitor then it’s likely the majority of web pages would be able to fully display within that height meaning no fold would exist at all. Open the same page on a smartphone however and the content would either resize to fit or you’d need to scroll. With this in mind, why would we stick to the regular 800x600 dimension? By sticking to the “above the fold” mantra, your content would inevitably become squeezed at the top of the browser which would undoubtedly do your web page a great disservice. Those viewing via a small screen would find your content edited and unnecessarily shortened whilst those on large screens would find themselves viewing a lot of unused screen and this is all because you or your client doesn’t believe that users scroll down the page. When computer monitors are now so huge or extremely tiny (as is the case with smartphones) it’s simply impossible to have a fixed dimension in terms of the “above the fold” on a web page. The notion may work for newspapers and magazines due to their consistency in size and it may have worked for the Internet in the early days but today there wouldn’t appear to be a fold as such. Users today are happy to scroll, in fact the majority would prefer to scroll and continue to read your content as opposed to viewing a number of different pages.

With no fold in sight, could infinite scrolling be the answer?

With multiple screen sizes now common place, the notion of infinite scrolling has become more popular however the question is, is it for you? Whilst it’s proven to be highly engaging for some websites offering exciting creative possibilities, it has backfired for others causing severe navigation problems. So what is infinite scrolling? Well, it’s a feature that allows your visitors to scroll through your website’s single page without actually reaching the end or having to leave the page. With no end, the users never reach the bottom and instead browse your content all in one go. This means no waiting for different pages to load, saving them time however others argue this could make them lose interest. A great example of infinite scrolling success would be social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Social media networks are living proof that infinite scrolling can indeed work when applied for the right reasons and in the right way however you need to decide if this is right for you. Take time to figure out the goal of your company. Is it an e-magazine? Is it content orientated with plenty of information and articles? If so then infinite scrolling might just be the perfect option for you. If you own an e-commerce website however, then infinite scrolling could be a huge mistake. This would be due to the lack of clear structure for your potential customers. Navigating your products and services would prove difficult leading to disorientation and a lot of frustration.

You need to very carefully define your audience and ask yourself if your visitors are looking for the information you’re giving them. Are they searching via their smartphones or tablets? Are they in search of a powerful visual? If so then infinite scrolling could work as it would allow you a way to present your content in a convenient and very attractive manner whilst getting rid of the hassle of tapping links. Infinite scrolling is also a great addition if your content happens to be image heavy. Instagram and Pinterest are particularly good examples. If your visitors aren’t looking for any of that however then a different experience would indeed be had. If they’re simply looking to buy your products or pay for the services you have to offer then you need a footer. This is something that infinite scrolling simply won’t offer. Equally, if your visitors are in search of FAQs or a Contact Us then infinite scrolling could put them off completely. Customers such as these are in search of clear and concise structure and that’s something you need to give them.

Infinite scrolling can be attractive and creative however it’s not for everyone. Equally, the “above the fold” mantra would appear to be something of times past. So where does this leave you? In need of a happy medium it would seem. If this would appear to be the very same position you find yourself in, or if you’d like more information on reinvigorating an old website then contact our team of web designexperts today. Our web design department at Wecan Media have the knowledge and expertise to really give your website the boost it needs for your specific requirements and that of your visitors.

Source – MilissaTarquini. Director of User Interface Design and Information Architecture at AOL “Blasting the myth of the fold” July 24th 2007

Source – Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Above The Fold