A lot of talk in the web industry at various times has gone into a debate over the issue of “above the fold” and “below the fold” or more commonly just “the fold”. This debate seems to pop up now and then and the general discussion always circulates around the importance of what falls above the fold vs. what falls below the fold, will users know to scroll? etc. Many people these days are calling this the “fold myth” for good reason. It is very apparent that the fold has little importance in the modern web because users scroll as a habit at this point.
My thoughts on this issue are two-fold (no pun intended). On one hand it makes me not want to write about it because it is a a dead issue. Studies conducted way back in 2006 (in a study testing 120,000 site visits) revealed that yes, people are very comfortable scrolling (clicktale.com). The other side of this issue, for me, is the fact that web professionals in their “don’t worry about the fold” kick have forgotten the real issue. The issue was 1/8th about space and 7/8th good user interface design and content aggregation; something that has been left out in a “don’t think, just make the page taller” state of web design.
Before I get into that discussion a quick look at the history of the fold.
What is the fold?
Briefly, for those who don’t know, the fold is actually a newspaper terminology carry-over to the web. The fold in newspaper represents just that, the line where the first page is folded over. On the web it represents what you see when you first land on a page before you ever scroll.
The the case of the star tribune site I’ve posted on the right, the fold happened to be at the line I have drawn on while the page goes further, I can not see it without scrolling.
As I mentioned before, users of the internet for the most part are not thrown by the idea that you have to scroll to see the rest of the page. Yes, you can design to lead people to think there is more to the page but for the most part people will know if they should scroll based on their scroll bar or just out of habit.
The real issue
So this has been proved over and over again right? Why am I writing about this now? Design your site to expand over the fold and people will scroll down to potentially view your content.
But I think we forgot the real reason anyone ever cared about the fold in the first place. People who held the fold as the line in which all things had to be held above or they would not get seen spent their time cramming all their content and junk into this tiny space. The result was a page with no relief for the eye (white space). These sites left no path for the eye to travel and were confusing for users. Now we are seeing an equal and opposite backlash of websites that are crammed with 5 to 10 times the amount of non-related content (with plenty of whitespace usually) and users have gone from non-scrolling and confused to scrolling for minutes without knowing where to go.
The key has to remain, that as someone building a website one has to create a path for people through the site, hold your users hand and make sure the content you have smattered thousands of pixels high is relevant content.
Forget about the fold
Now we know, users scroll and we are taking advantage. Sites now can space things out and leave viewers and readers visual relief in the form of white space. But we sometimes forget, especially on home pages, that users need to be led by the hand through the website. In the same way films present stories with a flow, leading viewers from point A. to point B. and so on, we need to do this with our web sites. Websites are not about how much visual noise we can create above or below the fold but it is about clarity of message and content aggregation. Users of modern websites need structure and guidance in the same way as a story arc in a Hollywood movie (a sad topic for another day). Don’t overfill a page of any size with unrelated content. Your understanding of your viewer should prescribe one or two paths through the site and cleaning up all the extra visual noise and unrelated content can go a long way in engaging visitors rather than confusing them (you will notice when it comes to mobile design people are discovering how much unnecessary noise their sites really have).
The point is, considering the page fold and what falls above or below it seems to be attacking the problem from the middle when it comes to organizing a website. Start with what is important on the page (content first as always) and how it leads users down but more importantly through your site. Hitting a website and seeing a long page with no particular focus is a surefire way to confuse your users and move them off of your site rather than into it, and then who cares what’s above or below this mythical fold line?