Small viewports… and the death of the fold

Like all the best/worst B-movies, the bad guy you thought was dead and gone has summoned up his last ounce of strength for one last attack. The Fold is back. With a twist.

A short debate

The debate about whether a ‘fold’ exists on the web begins and ends with the following assertions: yes, content goes off-screen in the majority of websites and yes, users are willing to scroll to read it. Period. Note that the second point doesn’t dispense with the need for clients and designers to assign priorities within content and for the designer to create a visual hierarchy based on these priorities. These are crucial conversations in any project. And this is the very area where things are going to get interesting.

Top of the (content) pops

The current mobilisation towards responsive design is laudable, and a great many people are currently wrestling the theory towards best practice. Despite what may be pronounced from various sources across the web, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution for myriad viewport sizes. What we will likely emerge with is a toolbox of approaches for use in a variety of contexts, of which responsive design will be just one. But what ‘responsive’ highlights very effectively, in a way that designing for desktop does not, is the relative priority of content as the viewport shrinks.

Top=good, bottom=bad

Laying out web content for a desktop PC or laptop provides plenty of screen real estate to play with. We can cheat the hierarchy by placing something somewhere else in a vast 960 x [whatever] pixel canvas and create visual priorities through the use of colour, space etc. We can design within grids and columns that allow pretty much everything to get a look in. Whatever sits further down the page is somewhat less important and everything that sits towards the top of the page is more important. But this is far from the absolute scale that we are going to need.

Extreme content. Dude.

For a responsive approach we need to decide on absolute priority, not a vague, general hierarchy. A glance at any of the new breed of responsive sites on a mobile device tells you one thing: the content has a no-nonsense, top-to-bottom hierarchy. This kind of extreme prioritisation is going to form part of the new normal in designing for the web. The conversations right at the outset of the design process will need to address this. “If the user could only see one part of the site, what would it be?” is as basic a question as can be asked but it has tremendous resonance now.

All change

Further, if we are now giving something lowest priority and it will require a significant amount of swiping or scrolling to get to… is it really required at all? And if that element is removed, what about the content which is now at the bottom? These issues have massive potential to skew how we assess content and it is barely credible that the now ‘traditional’ website we have grown so accustomed to will not be affected by these shifts.

It’s what thumbs are for

And what of the fold? The old arguments used to go that if the fold existed, everything needed to be forced into the area above it for fear of users missing it. By the same logic, on a 320 x 480 viewport the user is going to miss… pretty much everything. The same logic would also suggest that those users won’t know to swipe to see more. Except we know that they will.

Web origami

The fact is there is no longer even a single fold. On a small device there are multiple folds, multiple screens to scroll through. But bizarrely the more folds exist the less they matter. Users now expect to swipe and to scroll. So sleep easy and let it be known: the fold is dead.

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