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Evolving Design Standards: The Fold

There continues to be a common misconception among some clients and designers that we must get anything "important" that we want our users to see above the fold. Fold example imageFor those who may not know what "the fold" is, it is basically the part of a web page you can see before having to scroll. The fold varies from user to user based on a number of variables – primarily screen resolution and the combined height of the menus and toolbars at the top of your browser window. While on a friend's computer not long ago, I opened up her browser and there were nearly four inches worth of menus/toolbars at the top of her window. It was amazing the loss of screen real estate and, in this case, great attention to the fold wouldn't have mattered. To the point ... Milissa Tarquini's post at Boxes and Arrows goes to great length to debunk the myth of the fold and builds off her very real experience and some very factual user data. It doesn't throw concern for the fold entirely out the window, but brings us down to earth and puts the importance of the fold in proper contemporary perspective. Some of the points that I found quite interesting are:
The technical considerations of designing for the web can (and do) change quite regularly; but, the human variables change at a slower rate. Sometimes, the human variables change at such a slow rate that we have a hard time believing that it happens. This is happening right now in web design. There is an astonishing amount of disbelief that the users of web pages have learned to scroll and that they do so regularly. Holding on to this disbelief – this myth that users won’t scroll to see anything below the fold – is doing everyone a great disservice, most of all our users ... Screen performance data and new research indicate that users will scroll to find information and items below the fold. There are established design best practices to ensure that users recognize when a fold exists and that content extends below it ... Jakob Nielsen wrote about the growing acceptance and understanding of scrolling in 1997, yet 10 years later we are still hearing that users don’t scroll ... Research debunking this myth is starting to pop up, and a great example of this is the report available on ... The most basic rule of thumb (in considering the fold today) 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. If they have to scroll to even discover what the site is, its success is unlikely ... Stop worrying about 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 ... The biggest lesson to be learned here is that if you use visual cues (such as cut-off images and text) and compelling content, users will scroll to see all of it ...
Other relevant articles that Milissa cites: Jared Spool's Utilizing the Cut-off Look to Encourage Users To Scroll Jakob Nielsen's Changes in Web Usability Since 1994 ClickTale's Unfolding the Fold So, in general, as we continue to overcome the fear of the fold, it appears that our attentions can best be focused toward creating both engaging designs and compelling content that encourage users to explore the page and the site, and that opening our designs up a bit to create some "visual breathing room" might be the alternative medicine that our users need. Know the trends, but also know when they bend or when they end – the web and users are constantly evolving, and so should our approaches.

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