Does the page fold matter in online help?

online help

On the online help courses I ran in the 1990s, one of the basic points I made was to design help so that users didn’t have to scroll down a page. Content below the page fold was never read. So is the advice I used to give still relevant?

Research on web site usability has much to say about the page fold and much of this is applicable to online help.

Where is the page fold?

An important side issue is actually locating the place of the page fold. It depends on factors such as your screen resolution, text size, and so on. Different users will have their page fold at different points. So if you don’t know where the page fold is, can you take it into account?

What does the research tell us?

I’ve always been influenced by Jakob Nielsen’s work and his excellent article, Scrolling and Attention, makes some important points. Nielsen originally advised avoiding scrolling pages but revised his position in 1997. His findings were that users of websites spent 80% of their time looking at information above the fold and only 20% below the fold. However, web user habits were changing; scrolling was becoming more acceptable.

In his article, The myth of the page fold; evidence from user testing Joe Leech at cxpartners makes an important contribution to the debate. Based on his extensive research, rarely does scrolling prove a barrier to users reaching the content they want. Indeed the scroll bar gives users an indication of the content below the page fold and helps users asses the page length.

Engaging content above the fold certainly encourages scrolling below the fold.

Is attention span the problem?

The further users scan a topic, the more their attention dwindles. They seem to run out of energy the further they get down a page. But perhaps that’s as much of a comment on the content and the way it’s written, rather than on the user.

It’s important to recognise though that the users of online help and readers of a website may have widely different motivations. Browsing a web site, for many people, is a leisure activity. Online help users are motivated by a specific information requirement. They are more focused in their reading and more likely to follow the information scent further down the topic than people browsing a website.

So does the fold matter?

I no longer think the fold matters in the way it did 20 years ago. This doesn’t mean that you should sacrifice good online writing just because you can have a scroll bar. (See making your online help successful)

People only ever scan online help to find the section they need, rather than reading it word by word. It’s much easier to scan down a page using the scroll bar than it is to switch pages and start again.

Best tips

So what are the best bits of advice I can offer help developers on the page fold problem:

  • Never force content into the area above the fold. What you may gain in user attention, you will lose in user understanding.
  • If you’re hyperlinking to a topic, use bookmarks to link to the most relevant paragraph in that topic. Take the user direct to their target; make it easy for them.
  • Don’t create barriers to scrolling and scanning down a topic. It’s always good to show that there is content below the fold, possibly by having an image around the page fold area. This may encourage users to scroll down a little further.

To view a sample of these tips in action, see our online help wiki sample.

Does the page fold matter in online help?
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