When the infinite scroll was first brought into media publishing companies, prosecco bottles popped on every office floor as the new UX was rolled out company-wide. I know because I was there: I worked at Hearst UK, publisher of titles like Cosmopolitan UK, until 2015.
The replacement of homepage widgets and carousels with a fast-loading, infinitely scrolling experience saw every brand’s engagement metrics go through the roof. Many media brands saw a subsequent quadrupling of “time on page” and lots of shiny new sales decks were polished to bring out to the market. Having your advertisement “above the fold” was now irrelevant, as “the fold” had dissolved into an endless stream of scrolling addiction.
Infinite scroll: the enemy of attention spans
While the technology was certainly the right move at the time—and also provided us with an exquisitely executed backend for editors—I’d like to surface something that has been bothering me lately: it feels like we should have already moved on from an endless feed.
The metrics and business models supported by the infinite scroll are no longer the best choice for publishers in 2019—and I dare I say, are bad for society. As display advertising gets slower and CPMs get lower, many publishers are seemingly going all-out with the clickbait headlines to reach for that extra page view or few seconds on site.
Image and animation by Pablo Stanley
Publishers surely have both social and fiscal responsibilities to provide headlines that aren’t misleading or sensationalizing just for the sake of a few more vacant clicks and scrolls. And yet, many are hanging on to the same metrics and tactics to facilitate a now-dying revenue stream.
Why do we bother with infinite scroll?
If we’ve learned anything about the news and “content” ecosystems over the past five years, it’s that sites that maximize for time on site and pageviews do not produce the most useful content (see: any site promoted in a Taboola/Outbrain widget).
Relying on raw pageviews works for a few years. Eventually, however, the lack of a stable audience catches up, and those publications struggle or becomes shadows of their former selves (see: Mic.com and Babe.Net). So why are sites still designed for those metrics?
Tell me who these Taboola widgets are for
“Infinite scroll always seemed like a solution waiting for a question,” John* a managing director who’s spent years working at Hearst and News UK, tells me. “Sites saw an increase in time on page when infinite scroll came along but did it really equate to anything of value? Traditionally, sites always have a footer where you can find [things like] contacts, help which suddenly disappeared. What if the infinite scrollers are simply looking for this? I hate it.”
Moving from endless scroll to algorithm to….?
The conversation about interfaces moving from endless scrolls to becoming increasingly personalized has been bandied about in bars for a few years now. There’s some evidence that, although a personalized experience would be welcomed, we’d all still be worried that we were missing out on some great content elsewhere.
Most notably in 2016, Instagram (arguably one of the key platforms convincing publishers to move to infinite scroll after they proved it worked for them) pivoted to a more personalized feed with a change from chronological to algorithmic. This was met with absolute dismay from its users.
People wanted to use the app until they were assured they had seen all of Instagram, which would have previously been heralded when a user reached the last post they’d seen on their most recent thumbing. (This, of course, led to the “you’re all caught up!” notification.)
“There’s some evidence that, although a personalized experience would be welcomed, we’d all still be worried that we were missing out on some great content elsewhere.”
The introduction of the algorithmic “most relevant posts to the top” alarmed users who were worried that they’d miss out on crucial posts, and now had little control over what they saw on their feed. How would they know when to stop?
It seems like we were all desperate for the infinite scroll to come back, but Instagram stuck with their personalization changes and the platform reported ~30m average scroll time in the app two years later, and more than 500M daily active users in Stories this year.
But we’ve made the same mistake again. Are these metrics of any real value? Or are they falsely inflated as users actually disengage as they numbly swipe their screens to ensure they’re still aware of The Whole Of The Internet? Aren’t we just repeating what happened with the first generation of the endless scroll?
“I have to believe that contextual presentation of a single valuable link will beat shoving desperate behavioral lists of crap in front of users over the long run,” a former media colleague tells me (and yes, I’d like to believe this too), but will it?
Shaping the future of the infinite scroll
What comes next will surely have to start with just one brave publisher taking the leap away from endless scrolling and towards—gasp!—editorializing their pages. Yes, you can usually curate story prominence for homepages and major landing pages, but only to a certain extent, and these pages are still full of content for content’s sake.
Whereas an algorithm shows you what you’ll enjoy based on what you’ve previously read and what your connections on the platform have read, the future of smart editorial could present you with an agenda of what the brand/company want you to enjoy plus algorithmic personalized suggestions. That’s good for readers and business.
“Who will be our next fearless UX leader? Who will be bold enough to begin moving away from business models that rely on clicks? Who will avoid the siren’s call of the endlessly scrolling feed and instead implement a human-curated experience?”
Imagine a perfectly curated page mixed with personalized suggestions plus an editorial stance, one where you could completely consume with just two scrolls and be satisfied with the quality experience. Woah.
As we grapple with our current information (and misinformation) overload and we’re looking for social responsibility and proven sources behind our content, I want to believe that more publishers will move away from “high content velocity” and towards quality over quantity, with a human touch.
“The metrics and business models supported by the infinite scroll are no longer the best choice for publishers in 2019—and I dare I say, are bad for society.”
We can’t leave this to the machines anymore. And as display advertising diminishes, the sensible option here is to ask users to pay for the content, which should reduce the need for innumerable articles to drive up now-de-valued pageviews or time-on-site. After all, what would you rather pay for? A genuinely curated human-to-human connection? Or an endless well of content?
“I think we’re going to see a move towards an experience built around decision engines, where anything on a website is a component, and what someone sees is based on a bunch of decisions made by humans and computers, with no one necessarily owning the whole viewing pane,” says John. “Though it’ll require design-based UX-ers to back off a bit, and take some guts to deliver. Not dissimilar to Global Experience Language.”
Who will be our next fearless UX leader? Who will be bold enough to begin moving away from business models that rely on clicks? Who will avoid the siren’s call of the endlessly scrolling feed and instead implement a human-curated experience?
I understand business models and editorially workflows make this harder than it appears. But even if you take issue with what should come next, I think we all can agree: the world will be a better place when the endless scroll finally, mercifully, dies.
* Some names have been changed.