I Die Every Time I Hear "The Fold"

I've worked at a lot of different companies, both big and small, and one thing that has been consistent is how people think about laying out content on the web. Most people think about the canvas as a static Photoshop document. A lot of people still think about design as purely existing between a Desktop computer and a user (more on that in a sec!) and then there's the dreaded "fold."

We've come a long way…but some things just don't go away. And I can't tell you how many times I've been disappointed when someone asks "where's the fold on this page?" Did I say disappointed? I actually meant I die a little bit on the inside.

As you can probably tell, I feel a bit strongly about eliminating "the fold" from the vernacular when we talk about web design. There are three key reasons for this:

1. The term is for print, not for web

As far as I can tell, this is a holdover from the print world. In newspapers, there is indeed a fold where the paper is literally folded in half. Arguably, a front-page story that's below the fold doesn't quite have the same splash as the one at the top of the page (above the fold). Pretty logical for print and, in fact, there are numerous other industries that have a similar concept. For example, in film and television production, there's an idea of being "title safe" where there's a certain amount of space around the edges of your frame where you don't put text that you want to ensure people will be able to see.

There are numerous studies (including this one from Nielsen) that indicate people will indeed scroll. There are products (like Pinterest) that depend on people's propensity to scroll. People scroll! People scroll when they are immersed in something; sometimes we are browsing whereas sometimes we want to get to the point quickly because we are more task oriented.

2. The fold is what you make it

If you really want to think about "the fold," then at least let your users tell you where it is. I find so many folks assuming the fold will be at around X hundreds of pixels but the only way to really know for sure is to dive into your analytics package and pull some cold hard data.

More likely than not, looking at browser heights across your users will give you some insights. It's likely that, unless your site is particularly unusable at certain breakpoints, you'll have a distribution that is not unlike the rest of the internet. Additionally, to some degree you have to understand your content hierarchy and how that's making your users feel. More data, like bounce rate, time spent on site or even percentage of the page the user scrolled through before abandoning, can tell you a lot about how your content may not be helping your cause. Again, people will scroll and they will scroll because they want more of what you are giving them; if you aren't giving them what they want, they will bounce (and you'll see that data in your bounce rate and exits).

If you really want to think about a fold, you have to realize that it is a range. It's not just 600 pixels. It will depend on your users and largely what device they are browsing on, which brings me to the next point…

3. Three words: responsive. web. design.

Responsive web design flipped the script! We want to respond to the device the user is on and the breakpoint at which they are navigating to our experience. If the user is on a mobile device, chances are we don't want to load giant images that will make the page take forever to load. Making adjustments to respond to the user where they are will require significant re-thinking of design and layout.

However, what this doesn't mean is that you have distinct versions of everything across a million breakpoints. You really have to be measured about how you display the content, especially on smaller devices. There are tactics you can employ to make it a great experience in a smaller viewport without cramming everything into the top of the page because you don't want to fall below this ficticious fold.

What's clear is that you have to be rather ruthless when it comes to content hierarchy. What is absolutely the most important thing you need to see immediately? And then, how do we design the UX in a way to draw someone into exploring more of that content if it's not readily available on page load. In my opinion, this often means we have to be a little more concise which I know is something few folks who create content and manage content want to hear.

To make a long story short, don't be that person who talks about "the fold." There's definitely an argument to be had about content hierarchy and how you organize content most effectively to drive users into a given behavior and/or give them what they want right away but that shouldn't come at the sacrifice of the integrity of your user experience.