So You Think You’ve Built a Good Infinite Scroll

Animated GIF showing mouse and keyboard scrolling efforts with infinite scroll on Pew Research site.
So you’re saying there’s a chance … that I’ll make it to the footer.

Last week Derek Featherstone posted Automatic infinite scrolling and accessibility, a quick rundown of why having your page just keep going without user input to do so can be such a hassle for users. Also, don’t do it.

In the comments someone trotted out an example of his own automatic infinite scroll that he felt was effective and was developed with the user in mind. I got a bit ranty and suggested otherwise. That wasn’t as productive as it could be, partly because I was commenting on one example that other developers might feel doesn’t apply to their own efforts at similar implementations.

I think maybe this could all be made a bit easier by offering a quick checklist of what to test, expect, and review if you attempt your own version of an automatic infinite scroll. Here is my attempt at one, but please feel free to suggest others (or corrections) in the comments below.

1. Can the user hit “back” and return to the exact same place?

There’s nothing quite so infuriating as loading a few screenfuls of content, following a link, and then coming back only to find you have to reload those screenfuls of content all over again. Not only is it a waste of time, it’s a waste of bandwidth.

2. Is there paging for when the JavaScript breaks?

Everybody surfs without JavaScript while the page is loading, and that load time can be extended by network lag. In addition, broken third-party scripts can take down your own script. Can the user still get past page one if the JavaScript has fallen down?

3. Does the page have a footer?

Now you’re just being a tease. The user will never get there, so don’t lie by showing the footer and implying he or she can get there. You might as well just remove it. It’s at least honest.

4. Can a keyboard user access all other content on the page?

Unless the content that keeps updating is (or contains) the last focus-able element in the source order (the linearized version of your page), then a keyboard user (as well as screen reader users) will never be able to get to that content. Just like the footer you might as well remove it altogether.

5. Can you share a URL to a specific place on the page?

After you’ve gone a few screenfuls deep you may have found a few links of interest. Can you copy the address from the browser and email it (or even tweet it) and expect the recipient will come to exact state of the page (a few screenfuls in and with that content visible in the viewport)? Remember, an anchor is useless if it hasn’t loaded yet (or has been co-opted by your script).

6. Can a user easily jump ahead a few “pages” to quickly get to content much further down the list?

Consider a list of news. After a couple screenfuls you might glean that each screen loads a week (or a month or whatever time period). You want content from a few weeks ago (or a few time periods ago). In a traditional paged navigation you could jump ahead a few screens to more quickly get further down the timeline. If your approach doesn’t afford users this control, you’re wasting your users’ time and bandwidth.

7. Does the memory footprint of the page dramatically increase after just a couple new “pages?”

Keep your favorite memory monitoring tool open and load a few screenfuls. Then a few more. Then perhaps all. Take a look at how much memory this requires and then compare to available memory on other devices (such as smart phones). Remember that a mobile browser may reclaim memory by dumping other resources from working memory, potentially purging the rest of your site and its assets from the user’s cache, resulting in more bandwidth overhead and longer download times on subsequent pages.

8. Is there a way to disable automatic infinite scrolling and lean on standard paging?

Can the user easily disable the infinite scroll? Forget browser configuration acrobatics, instead look for a very visible single-click/tap option for the user to disable infinite scrolling and move on.

9. Have you conducted any user tests?

Before you roll this out, make sure some real users sit down in front of it. Nobody from your organization. Nobody who is an IT professional, developer, or whose paycheck depends on making you or your boss happy.

10. Are you satisfying a use case that has come from research or user request?

Did this feature request come from users, or the client? Or your boss? Or your desire to flex your scripting muscles? If you don’t have a compelling use case or feature request to add it, you may want to put your efforts toward features that truly have value, like print styles.

11. Do you have any analytics/tracking to measure success?

If you do decide to launch your perfect automatic infinite scroll feature, don’t forget to put some tracking scripts in place to determine how many screens deep your users go, and how often they click. There are other things you can measure (like if the footer ever gets clicks on that page). After all, success isn’t measured by you launching, but by whether or not it works well.

Google’s Own Recommendations

The Google Webmaster Blog has its own list of recommendations, some of which overlap with those I listed above. If you consider your Google placement to be more important than how your users feel once they get to your site, then I guess you can just pay attention to these.

  1. Before you start:
    • Chunk your infinite-scroll page content into component pages that can be accessed when JavaScript is disabled.
    • Determine how much content to include on each page.
      • Be sure that if a searcher came directly to this page, they could easily find the exact item they wanted (e.g., without lots of scrolling before locating the desired content).
      • Maintain reasonable page load time.
    • Divide content so that there’s no overlap between component pages in the series (with the exception of buffering).

  2. no alt provided by Google
    The example on the left is search-friendly, the right example isn’t — the right example would cause crawling and indexing of duplicative content.

  3. Structure URLs for infinite scroll search engine processing.
    • Each component page contains a full URL. We recommend full URLs in this situation to minimize potential for configuration error.
      • Good: example.com/category?name=fun-items&page=1
      • Good: example.com/fun-items?lastid=567
      • Less optimal: example.com/fun-items#1
      • Test that each component page (the URL) works to take anyone directly to the content and is accessible/referenceable in a browser without the same cookie or user history.
    • Any key/value URL parameters should follow these recommendations:
      • Be sure the URL shows conceptually the same content two weeks from now.
        • Avoid relative-time based URL parameters:
          example.com/category/page.php?name=fun-items&days-ago=3
      • Create parameters that can surface valuable content to searchers.
        • Avoid non-searcher valuable parameters as the primary method to access content:
          example.com/fun-places?radius=5&lat=40.71&long=-73.40

  4. Configure pagination with each component page containing rel=next and rel=prev values in the <head>. Pagination values in the <body> will be ignored for Google indexing purposes because they could be created with user-generated content (not intended by the webmaster).

  5. Implement replaceState/pushState on the infinite scroll page. (The decision to use one or both is up to you and your site’s user behavior). That said, we recommend including pushState (by itself, or in conjunction with replaceState) for the following:
    • Any user action that resembles a click or actively turning a page.
    • To provide users with the ability to serially backup through the most recently paginated content.

  6. Test!

Update: July 14, 2014

Update: November 11, 2014

I left this list as a comment on the SitePoint article The UX of Infinite Scroll: The Good, the Bad, and the Maybe. Mostly because there is no good. There is only bad.

Update: February 13, 2015

Another post that proclaims the benefits of infinite scroll, with nothing at all to back them up: Infinite Scrolling: Pros and Cons It does list some issues, but it’s a woefully short list.

Update: December 13, 2015

Web Designer Depot has gotten on board with criticizing infinite scroll in the post How infinite scrolling breaks UX.

Update: March 4, 2016

Baymard Institute has a post at Smashing Magazine, Infinite Scrolling, Pagination Or “Load More” Buttons? Usability Findings In eCommerce, that is worth a read to see what conclusions they’ve come to from some real-world tests.

Update: May 9, 2016

I stumbled upon a post at Medium (ok, some company’s blog that is housed at Medium) that claims to take a look at infinite scroll from the perspective of UX: UX: Infinite Scrolling vs. Pagination

It lists some pros and cons for each, but when its pros aren’t well grounded and its cons completely fail to even reference accessibility issues, I am pretty quick to dismiss the entire piece. I did, of course, leave a comment (in what has to be the most confounding commenting interface I’ve seen in a while).

13 Comments

Reply

Nice article. You should take a look at infinite scroll at our RSS reader – http://silverreader.com It has various keyboard shorcuts implemented…

In response to Radenko Zec. Reply

Radenko,

It's an app. Keyboard shortcuts or not, are you suggesting it honors all the rules I outline above, or is this just spam? I'll ask on Twitter before I delete this.

In response to Radenko Zec. Reply

Hi Adrian.
I wanted to point out that you should look at our implementation. I think it covers lot of from your checklist.
It is not spam.

In response to Radenko Zec. Reply

At your prompting I signed up and tried it out.

1. The back button doesn't apply as all links open in a new window, so kudos for bypassing that one.

2. The page doesn't render without JavaScript (even after enabling JavaScript just to log in), so it fails #2.

3. There is no footer, so you PASS #3.

4. As I tab through the page, partway into a second post my keyboard focus jumps back to the first post. Consistently (Chrome 35 Win). It fails #4.

5. I cannot share a URL, though that point may not apply as this is a page behind a login.

6. I cannot jump ahead a few screenfuls, so it fails #6.

7. I only loaded about 20 items, but the memory did increase and will do so even more for longer blog entries. I say it fails #7.

8. I see no option to disable the auto infinite scroll. It fails #8.

9. Have you conducted user tests?

10. Was this feature driven by a clear need or request?

11. Are you measuring (not just tracking) how well this works for users?

Out of 11 items, it passes only 1. Your example fails 5, doesn't apply to 2 more, and the remaining 3 only you know the answer.

I don't consider a ~50% failure rate (or ~10% pass rate) something that covers "a lot" from my checklist.

I'm not sure why you posted it. It's a pretty quick process for you to check it and you have to see it doesn't pass any more than one item, Four items (out of eleven) if you can make a case for your user testing.

Reply

CAN YOU USE AN ORDERED LIST WITH YOUR H2s?

In response to joeclark. Reply

Hi, Joe, long time no chat!

I opted not to use a list at all because with the amount of content I figured headings were an appropriate fit (though I did consider an opening list with anchor links to each heading). Ate you suggesting I wrap the entire post in an OL and put headings/content in each LI?

Reply

Ugh, it's Joe Clark. Joe Clark, everybody.

Reply

Back in Feb Google posted some advice to make infinite scroll mode search engine friendly.

http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2014/02/infinite-scroll-search-friendly.html

In response to Jonathan Worent. Reply

Forgot about that, thanks for posting it. Note that Google has its own checklist of items just to make your infinite scroll indexable. Add those 6 to my 11 above, and you've now got 17 items to check.

Reply

IMHO I would offer an “unload first shown items” button. This way you could also manage the dynamic range of items you would like to show via the following URL parameters: first-item, last-item.

This way you can save memory (if the user unloads items, manually or automatically after scrolling) without forcing a paginated list.

Think for example that the user wants to list items 3 to 7 of a list with 8 items. With a paginated list I think it is not possible, even allowing him to choose the amount of items that can be shown in each page.

Replacestate would be the last ingredient. Pushstate is not interesting, because the list has not a unique sorting criteria, the user can choose it.

In response to ant. Reply

I appreciate that you are thinking about solutions in the context of the JavaScript-driven infinite scroll. The particular issue you cite can be addressed without all the client-side scripting, however. Allowing users to choose how many items per page can let users see groupings that might span pages in a paginated view, all without the script hassle. Both client-side and server-side will suffer from not being able to show only a very specific range without additional user interface elements.

aroselli; . Permalink
Reply

feedly (RSS reader) executed infinity scroll the right way.

In response to Ran. Reply

By “the right way,” do you mean in your opinion or in mine? My opinion is clearly laid out above, and while I do not have a Feedly account, a few minutes on the marketing site does not give me high hopes it does a good job of infinite scroll.

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