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Infinite Scrolling Keeps Web Users At the Edge of Their Seats

Opinion

Infinite Scrolling Keeps Web Users At the Edge of Their Seats

Author Nir Eyal explores why web interface switched from clicking to infinite scrolling and how this change affects our brains

Nir Eyal | 10:22  13.04.2018
Not too long ago, users were forced to reload pages to progress from one piece of content to the next. Web designers were advised against creating websites with information appearing “below the fold,” referring to the portion of the page that exceeds the screen’s lower limit.

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As mobile phones and tablets gained wider adoption, it looked like the swipe might become standard fare. But today, designers are dumping the click and flick and opting for the scroll for one simple reason — it works.
"Like a loose slot machine, the infinite scroll gives users fast access to variable rewards" (illustration). Photo: Bloomberg "Like a loose slot machine, the infinite scroll gives users fast access to variable rewards" (illustration). Photo: Bloomberg "Like a loose slot machine, the infinite scroll gives users fast access to variable rewards" (illustration). Photo: Bloomberg

The Endless Search

The rise of dynamic content, like a new comment entering the feed, necessitated a better solution than pagination built for static content. But to really understand why the scroll works so well requires a brief trip inside the mind and back in time.

Our brains evolved through the millennia into incredible prediction machines, designed to help us make sense of our environment. Our species benefited from our ability to make good decisions based on what we know is likely to happen in the future, thus, keeping us alive long enough to make babies and spread our genes.

To make correct predictions, the brain accesses memories, which allow us to deduce what is coming next in a nearly instantaneous process of pattern recognition. The ability to learn is simply the conditioning of the brain to recognize cause and (blank).

You were expecting “effect”, were you not? Of course you were. That is because your brain has learned that these two words, “cause” and “effect,” tend to go together.

It is this conditioning that creates cognitive shortcuts and habits, allowing us to process tremendous amounts of information all at once. Our brains move known causal patterns to long-term storage so that our attention can be devoted to learning new things.

And nothing holds our attention better than the unknown. The things that captivate, engross, and entertain us, all have an element of surprise. Our brains cannot get enough of trying to predict what is next.

Our dopamine system kicks into high-gear when we are waiting to know if our team will make the field goal, how the dice will land, or how the movie ends. Like a loose slot machine, the infinite scroll gives users fast access to variable rewards.

Interestingly, our brain is not wired to seek pleasure alone. In fact, much of our motivation comes from alleviating the pain of desire. Dopamine levels spike when we are just about to find reward and plummet after we receive it.

To get us to do just about anything, evolution uses this chemical cascade to induce anticipation, motivation, and finally pain alleviation. Somehow we call this endless merry-go-round “fun.”

Once You Pop

Few other methods for displaying information produce the curiosity to see what is next like the infinite scroll. Like coffee with chocolate, the infinite scroll pairs particularly well with another increasingly-used design pattern—the masonry grid layout made famous by Pinterest. The barrage of enticing content speeds users up, enticing them to scroll, while the abundant grid slows them down, retaining their attention and moderating their thirst for more and more stimulation.

The visual tension is mesmerizing and addictive. I dare you to go to the Pinterest homepage and not feel tempted to scroll just once. It is like opening a can of digital Pringles.

To Mobile and Back

The infinite scroll has benefited both mobile and web interfaces as designers seize the opportunity to make consistent experiences across both versions of their products.

Once users learn how to use a product, they form habits related to their expectations of how the service works. It is here that design becomes a competitive advantage as users find it difficult to switch to a competitor’s product.

Recently, the constraints of the mobile experience seem to influence the design of websites accessed on large screens. Creating an interface optimized for mobile devices and porting these interface decisions to the web makes good sense.

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The projections are that mobile devices are becoming the primary way people access the Internet. While certainly not perfect for every scenario, scrolling is an efficient use of the mobile screen.

Mobile devices have practically become attached to our bodies and their ability to load dynamic content quickly, has addictive characteristics, meaning we will all be doing a lot more scrolling in the future.

Nir Eyal is the author of "Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products" and blogs about the psychology of products at NirAndFar.com

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