To infinite scroll and beyond!

I saw kanebennet's opinion piece on Hacker News recently (""Why infinite scrolling in web apps is destroying content consumption") and sent the link around to some friends and colleagues in the web industry asking for their thoughts on the piece.

The entire premise was summarily dismissed with comments like:

  • that is a silly argument! simple self control is the solution.
  • infinite scroll rocks! unless you need something in the footer, then it is the devils work
  • I like the self- control idea... Technology can't do everything for you...
  • it must be a pretty lonely existence to have an OCD about being able to finish all the content on a webpage.
  • Several responses also indicated the assumption that it was kanebennet personally who couldn't handle a page without a bottom :/

I tend to think the point was missed, which given the industry we work in showed a worrying lack of insight into the deeper issues that were touched upon.

I will not argue that infinite scroll has no place in UX, however I'd like to address some of the objections that were raised and hopefully direct the level of discussion toward a wider context so that some value can be gleaned from the exercise.

If you're unfamiliar with the concept of Infinite Scroll, check out Scrolldit (scrolls through reddit content). But remember to come back here :)

1. The self control argument

One fallacy is the illusion of self control since we are all a product of our genetics and environment. Of course this line of thinking gets metaphysical in short order, and the intent isn't to decide once and for all what kind of universe we live in. Even if you believe in a non-deterministic universe, it's still difficult to ignore the weight of the evidence uncovered by thousands of studies which support the role of genetics and the environment in shaping a person's identity and behavior patterns from conception until death.

From this it follows that a "self control" argument has no rational basis. Instead let's take it for what it really is: an easy-to-deploy blame-reassignment strategy so that one doesn't have to accept any responsibility for a given thing, even (or perhaps especially) if people are suffering as a result of that thing.

"Scoff, infinite scroll (or whatever technology may be today's bone of contention) doesn't cause suffering, there are no victims! It's just a website!" Some might protest.

Such protestations fly in the face of evidence to the contrary. Internet addiction or compulsion is a well-researched field (not without controversy, mind you). There are strong signs that measurable neurological and psychological change (which I'll stop short of calling "brain damage") can be caused as a result of mindlessly consuming online content. This effect is apparently more prominent in adolescents who conceivably do not have the maturity and restraint required to control compulsive behavior at time in their lives where their brains are undergoing the final phases of development that will set them up for life.

Left untreated, such people may not gain "self control" skills, as overcoming mental illness is not a spontaneous thing and often requires a great deal of therapy (still a young science).

If we accept that Internet addiction (or compulsion) is real then anything that encourages users to engage for longer periods of time enables this compulsive behavior and enables their suffering.

Infinite scrolling may just be the canary in the coal mine.

2. The "It's so awesommmeeee!!11" argument.

Even if you say "poppycock" to the compulsive behaviors argument, infinite scroll can easily be a bad UX choice that can damage business with documented cases of loss of user engagement and, potentially, conversions.

To understand why this happens, one has to understand the user's perspective as this drives their behavior. Two main things influence this:

  • Their psychological profile
  • The technology they are presented with

In terms of technology, infinite scroll is still quite young. Obvious improvements to reduce the likelihood of people losing their place on the wall include in-page bookmarks, a "basket" to throw favorited items into, the ability to bookmark and return to the same page on the exact same wall of content you're currently on (rather than a new search being performed), and so on. These are all factors that are under the developer's control.

In terms of the psychology of users, which until a mind control plug-in gets embedded in everyone's browser is sadly outside of our control (but not outside of the ability to understand), situations that cause overchoice, information overload and analysis paralysis are known to exist and have been well researched with known effects that include anxiety, increased stress levels, reduced engagement and comprehension of the material and so on. Given this evidence, it seems safe to surmise that a wall of items, all similar in nature and of which are in virtually limitless supply can cause if not psychological harm, then at the very least a significant reduction in the perceived value of the items such a service may host.

Such a reduction in value has three obvious consequences:

  • Content authors who value their skills will choose to publish with a provider where there is a perceived value in the content they produce
  • Content consumers who desire engagement with valuable content will move to platforms that are presenting content with a higher perceived value
  • The remaining consumers barely engage with content that is produced by authors who care less about the quality of their work, devaluing the platform further

None of this is good for anyone involved in online business.

From an ownership perspective, the quality of the content and engagement of users drives the value of your site. Do you really want to lower the value of your most critical commodity?

From a marketing perspective do you want the site with 1,000,000 zombies with glazed eyes drooling over their keyboards, or the one that has 10,000 well-informed thought-leaders.

You can see sites like Medium countering this downward spiral by focusing on quality over quantity. It takes little more than a cursory glance to get a sense that the perceived value of their articles is far greater than endless walls of headlines and thumbnails.

Perhaps in an environment loaded with seemingly indistinguishable information-spewing faucets, the "less is more" approach is a positive trend away from mind-spam towards value.

Technology shouldn't do everything for people

As technology is made by and for people this criticism is really "People (in control of technology implementation) shouldn't do everything for people (who are not in control of technology implementation)".

There is some weight to this criticism. As a developer, should I really beat myself up if someone gets hopelessly addicted to my application and through a tragic chain of events destroys her life? Of course we all have limits and disclaimers on the scope of responsibility for our actions. Such limits are important, indeed it would be difficult to do anything if every "flap of a butterfly's wing" could cause some catastrophe at some indeterminate time and place in the future. It can easily be argued that such a person would have spiralled into another outlet for their self destructive tendencies.

This is no longer a discussion about an "infinite scroll" trick. We are now in the territory of personal ethics.

Would my self-absolution still stand if I'd done an incredible amount of in-depth research and tweaked my hypothetical app to deliberately make my projects as addictive (and therefore profitable) as possible? Anyone in marketing would say "Yes" because the Raison d'être of marketing is to keep everyone in the world focussed on their brand. Every moment a person is not thinking about a particular brand is considered a loss to the associated marketers. It's difficult to overstate just how much effort goes into consumer retention. Coca-Cola alone is spending around $4 billion USD on their marketing efforts last year, and are pumping another $4 billion USD into China alone in coming years.

The individual has a right and perhaps even an obligation to limit their consumption of things that harm their life and encourage others to do the same; no one is holding a gun to their head. That said, a multi-billion dollar industry exists whose sole aim is to engage consumers and keep them on-brand. This employs some of the best scientific and mathematical geniuses of our generation who are developing tools to better achieve these goals. Much research goes into the psychology of consumers so that the knowledge gained from the studies can be exploited to further engage users in a brand.

If you were to imagine the perfect marketing website, it would be easy to use, feel safe to the user by addressing their Maslow's needs for community, respect, love and belonging. It would keep them engaged for as long as possible, and therefore must be as addictive as possible. Everything is focussed on refining the addictive potential of a brand's online presence, trying to get more users to interact for as long as possible. I'm usually against the use of straw-men, but I imagine the motives are similar to the manufacturers of mind-altering drugs; get as many people hopelessly hooked as possible and make it rich.

Which is sad, knowing where the World Wide Web began. In my 33 short years I've personally witnessed corporate influence transform the web from a hive of information and open collaboration into a short-thrills high-grade form of e-crack. No one in the industry seems to think this is a problem, and if there are problems then the "victims" get blamed.

There is of course a distinction to be made between an honest business trying to get their product out there and a corporation that spends billions on becoming more addictive regardless of the human cost. However the question of where people should draw the line on when and where to take responsibility in the realm of the Web has not been answered definitively. Perhaps it never will be. Perhaps it's the ephemeral nature of cultural trends that will see this question bounce back and forth as ideals change.

I feel it's certainly a discussion worth having and something for anyone involved in the industry to keep in mind when going about their daily grind.

On some level are we all not responsible for one another?