Having started out my design education and career in a more print-focused direction, one of the major shocks of web design to me was the notion of “the fold”. The fold is an outdated term referring to a literally folded newspaper; in theory, all of the headlines and important content on the front page would appear “above the fold”. I used to treat the fold as my general online page size and would try to keep content above this imaginary boundary. As the years went by, it slowly dawned on me: there is no fold.
What you see isn’t what they get
There is no way to control the way online content is viewed and experienced by your audience. You can plan wisely to an extent, but you’ll go nuts trying to get the same site to show up in the same way on all computers across the world. Browsers and operating systems vary between user to user, and even with the same set-up, their viewing areas within browsers can vary too, due to stupid Bing toolbars etc. Monitors are getting increasingly gigantic leading to higher screen resolutions; with the wide range of physical and virtual viewing sizes, the old notion of a defined fold really goes out the window. Fluid or elastic width layouts (like Google Maps) can be a great solution to have your site look its’ best for various users, but those options come with their own headaches (like ridiculous line lengths across 30″ monitors…)
Long scrolling pages, FTW!
I was always told that going too far below the fold annoyed users and that the content would be completely lost and ignored, due to “too much scrolling”. I have no idea where that misconception came from, but maybe it stems from the 56k modem days where too much content one a single page wouldn’t load fast enough to maintain interest. Technology has obviously grown beyond the whine of a dial-up connection. I love having a lot content available on one page; instead of clicking to read short pages, I can just keep scrolling – I don’t have to wait for a series of pages to load, just one –albeit larger– page (check out Black Estate Vineyard for a great example). The fold is really useless in this case since it’s proven that people scroll – as long as you provide them with the tools at the bottom of the page to move on, or go back up, there is no problem with long scrolling pages.
Some other pages that take full advantage of vertical scrolling include: thismortalmagic and the idsgn blog where you can keep clicking “More posts” if you’re interested in additional content. Even corporate marketing pages like Basecamp utilize length to their advantage; if I feel like reading all of their testimonials, everything is here for my enjoyment. If this content doesn’t interest me, I haven’t lost anything.
Beyond the fold: enriching the user experience
The space that web designers have to work with now is no longer limited to just a width and height. There are many ways to enrich the user experience with additional content above, below, and hidden behind the visible content. As long as the layers of information are relevant to the user, the additional dimensions can promote easier browsing and encourage discovery. As these web technologies and capabilities grow, the idea of the fold becomes increasingly outdated. Exercising common sense in UI design basically covers all aspects that the fold was meant to dictate, things like important content should be high up on the page so the user notices it when they arrive (wow, who would’ve thought of that…).
I would love to see a shift in online experiences from the dated “all content in the fold” sites to a more blog-style experience, where everything is on the table. We shouldn’t have to worry about overwhelming the user – as long as the content is edited, compelling and engaging and well designed, they should have the final decision on what they want to read or ignore.