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Does "Above the Fold" Even Apply Anymore?

Posted on May 9, 2012 1

If you've ever laid eyes on a kid whipping through a webpage on an iPad, then you're probably very aware of how fluid the web experience is through the eyes of a 9-year old in cyberspace; even the most static content is set in motion as the web-savy mind searches and digests content at the flick of a finger. I'm also pretty sure there's not a mouse in production today that doesn't have a scroll wheel built into it.

So why then, are there still people asking us to design everything "above the fold"?

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What is "Above the Fold"?

The term "above the fold" is a graphic design concept that refers to the location of an important news story or a visually appealing photograph on the upper half of the front page of a newspaper. Most papers are delivered and displayed to customers folded up, meaning that only the top half of the front page is visible. Thus, an item that is "above the fold" may be one that the editors feel will entice people to buy the paper. Alternatively, it reflects a decision, on the part of the editors, that the article is one of the day's most important. By extension, the space above the fold is also preferred by advertisers, since it is the most prominent and visible even when the newspaper is on stands.

In the days before scrolling web pages were the norm, this same concept was applied to the layout of a site, and designers needed to be aware of the most common screen resolutions and how best to keep content visible while still maintaining branding and design considerations - all "above the fold". Today's web usability research tells us that people don't mind scrolling vertically through pages, and it could be argued that any web exploration is done with finger and eyes in perfect harmony.

No one navigates to a site, pulls their hands back and reads hands-free.

The most basic rule of thumb is that for every site the user should be able to understand what your site is about by the information presented to them above the fold. Positioning clear communication, branding, action statements and menu options in this area is a no-brainer. If someone can't figure out what you do from the moment they land on your site, then you need to rethink your web strategy.

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Case Studies

Take this example from CBC Music. There is plenty of action content above the fold (stuff we use constantly!), but much of the content is accessible by a hit of the scroll wheel or a flick of two fingers. We expect our content to "roll out" and have no issue sourcing our content this way.

 

Or how about Apple? They know a thing or two about design, and they choose to allow scrolling below the fold without fear of shareholder rebellion.

 

In fact, the design convention known as the "fat footer" (designing to ensure that there is visual interest + content available at the bottom of the page) is in common use today because of the way we roll through websites. (BTW - one of our favourite examples of a fat-footer in action can be seen here at TapBots).

Research debunking the myth of "all content must exist above the fold" is starting to pop up, and a great example of this is this report available on ClickTale.com (Unfolding the Fold). In it, the researchers used their proprietary tracking software to measure the activity of 120,000 pages. Their research gives data on the vertical height of the page and the point to which a user scrolls. In the study, they found that 76% of users scrolled and that a good portion of them scrolled all the way to the bottom, despite the height of the screen. Even the longest of web pages were scrolled to the bottom.

 

Our favourite quote from ClickTale.com:

"Web designers and usability professionals have debated the topic of web page scrolling since 1994. At the early days of the web, most users were unfamiliar with the concept of scrolling and it was not a natural thing for them to do. As a result, web designers would design web pages so that all the important content would be "Above the fold" or even worse, squeeze the entire page into the initial screen area. This practice of "squeezing" continues today."

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The Bottom Line

The bottom line to our clients is to stop worrying about the fold. Less content above the fold may encourage more exploration below the fold.

Don’t throw your best practices out the window, but stop cramming stuff above a certain pixel point. You’re not helping anyone. Open up your designs and give your users some visual breathing room. If your content is compelling enough your users will read it to the end.

 

Comments

Andrew Wasson

May 31, 2012 at 12:07 PM

Hi Clay, This is of course a subject of interest to me as well and I too think the "above the fold" requirement for design/layout has shifted as we've moved from primarily print media to screen based media. We've also got a much broader demographic to consider when designing for the screen. Is the audience 9 years old or 59 years old? That will make a huge difference in how they consume the media today but tomorrow as technology shifts, we'll have to rethink it again. Anyway, thanks for the interesting article. Take care, Andrew

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