Back in the roaring 90s, when rap and rock came together to lower our collective standards, when Shaq made his star turn as an acting juggernaut, and lots and lots of other really bad things happened (or amazing depending on the tint of your glasses), usability expert Jakob Nielsen published an oft-cited and oft-reviled study.
Entitled “Changes in Web Usability”, Nielsen’s study discouraged websites to place important content below a point that required “scrolling” to get to. According to the study, only 20% of online users EVER scrolled down a page, and far fewer would give content below the “fold” any attention at all.
The term “fold” refers to the crease in a newspaper that’s made when folded, hours before it’s carelessly lobbed by some no-account teenager on a bicycle at your front door. In the world of print news, it’s a well-known fact that most of the things written below the crease are never read by the majority of the public. And beyond the front page? Forget it. You keep your most important stuff up front so that it’s instantly visible to whoever is buying the paper. That important stuff is what sells.
Then again it’s 2014 and both the paper and the paperboy are disappearing at a comforting rate. A tree is saved and your news is delivered on your iPhone or an iPad or whatever Android thing you use. All three(thousand) of these devices have different “folds”, and not just between the different devices, but even depending on the way you’re holding your phone.
In the days of Nielsen’s study, the dog days of Windows 95 and of Packard Bell, screen sizes didn’t vary a great deal and the fold pretty much stayed in the same place. Back then, scrolling was done with a wheel and then some large wooden device that was fed water would generate power and then the webpage would scroll.
Fast forward to 2007: Apple released the iPhone and suddenly scrolling was as easy as dragging your finger across a sleek glass surface. The water wheel became obsolete, the entire history of human knowledge was instantly and easily accessible to everyone via a tiny magical device you could carry in your pocket, and people began to share videos of cats and argue with strangers without ever having to face the harsh outside world. The internet was changed forever.
That same year ClickTale produced a study that indicated over 75% of users now scroll on a web page, which isn’t exactly comforting to a content producer who might think that a quarter of their customers won’t see all their content. But it is pretty encouraging for the creatives and engineers who are trying to do fun things with websites. However, like the Nielsen study, ClickTale studied a web that simply doesn’t exist anymore.
In the past 5–6 years, the state of the web has changed rapidly. Everyone has a tablet and the web has gone SEO crazy. You can barely check your e-mail without someone trying to show you 12 tips for better abs (DON’T BELIEVE THEIR LIES). Scrolling has become so commonplace that blogs (such as this one) have adopted INFINITE scroll.
However the fact remains that while people are scrolling at mathematically transcendental proportions, even our own tests with web and e-mail efforts indicate the most upfront content at the top of the page is clicked the most. Whether that’s because we’ve been conditioned not to put anything important near the bottom or because there’s no way that bottom content would get the proper attention is another story.
The bottom line is the “fold” is a myth that persists because of a lack of innovation in storytelling and an assumption that people are robots: pre-programmed to allocate their attention only to the top of a website, regardless of what’s on it and where.
In fact, creative designers are finding ways to take their viewers by the hand and bring them on a magical journey to the footer of their page, and the way they’re doing that is through provocation. There are even studies that indicate less content above the so-called “fold” encourages scrolling.
So while some lazy marketers force their creatives to jam every needful detail into the top 600 pixels, others view the “fold” for what Nielsen’s research ACTUALLY indicates: a chance to hook your readers into diving deeper.
Updated November 17, 2017.