April 20, 2012
The human brain is a complex and amazing piece of hardware. However, it has limits. For example, it can only hold about seven things in its short term memory.
Knowing what we know, and knowing this is based on scientific study and hundreds of tests on memory and attention, why on earth would we believe it was a good idea to cram everything up to the same limited space, make it the same size, same boldness, and same intensity? Is our desire to overwhelm viewers and force them to move on thanks to information overload? If so, buy yourself a beer—you've succeeded.
Yet I can't begin to tell you how many times clients get overly worried about what elements in a design will fall above "the fold." As if scrolling is this strange exotic dance that only some of us know how to do. As if most of us sit there, limp-wristed, slamming our palms down on the mouse because clicking is all we simple humans understand. As if we are still recovering from missing out on that great story National Public Radio just published because GOD DAMN IT it was below the fold and we didn't know anything was down there.
The History of "The Fold"
If we go back to where this notion of "the fold" comes from, and how it made its way into the web and UX lexicons, we can immediately see some problems. The "fold" essentially referred to the fold in a traditional newspaper—remember them? Anything on the front page, above the fold, would be seen by the prospective buyer. So you wanted your top stories to not only be on the front page—you wanted them above that evil fold so you would SELL MORE PAPERS! Simple idea, makes sense, I can get behind it. And in fact, the last thing I would do would be to use precious above-the-fold space for things like a table of contents or an indexing and categorization system. I'd be putting my biggest, baddest stories front and center, even using precious expensive inks to ensure the gore was displayed in all its glory. This is what sold papers. This was the "hook," the "bait," the "lure," and it doesn't work if you can't see it. But you see, my friends, this matters not when we are offering up free content. We don't need to sell. In fact, some might say selling makes you look, shall we say, desperate. Desperation turns us off as human beings because we are programmed genetically to be picky, ensuring our species will prevail and our genetic strengths will carry on. Yet we are still acting like our Internet content is just a newspaper online.
The Internet is Not Paper
With the magical Internet, we don't actually touch paper, and words and pictures can move. We don't even have to pay for that paper anymore (sorry, New York Times, I know you're still trying to figure that one out). And since we don't have the same interfaces, the same principles rightly should NOT apply—right? Yet when the magic Internet appeared, we all still thought about it like a newspaper. Much the same way, when television first arrived and began to replace radio, the early shows were simply broadcasts of people reading the radio programs. We weren't using television for its true potential; we were just trying to move our old methods into a new interface. Eventually we figured out the best way to use television was to let Ryan Seacrest create shows about idiotic pornographic egomaniacs and see how many of us would actually watch them.
We don't open the Internet up like a paper; we aren't limited to a set dimension of paper that holds the information, and we get our information in a variety of formats depending on how we choose to consume it. There is no more fold. But there is an ever-growing expanse of consumption options and devices. I may get my headlines via the Twitter format, where a short blurb is Tweeted with a link to the full article. I may see this on my mobile device, save it for later, and then consume the whole article on my iPad. I hear people talking more and more about how they only use their desktops at work, and all home media consumption is happening through a variety of devices. The entire experience of how we consume information has changed, and the Internet has evolved to be far more than an electronic newspaper or brochure. It is a new way of consuming information, and it requires its own interface guidelines. These guidelines must be, in part, shaped by the device you consume the media from, right? Well, maybe not. Let's review. So first we had cave paintings, then symbols, then spoken language, then written language, then early manuscripts, then the printing press, then the radio, then the television, then the Internet, and now .... whoa, now it's like, everything is exploding, dude. My car provides media from the Internet; so does my phone, my television, my iPad, my game console. Soon my fridge will be providing and consuming information from the Internet, and so will my alarm system, my medicine cabinet, my shoes, the embedded devices in my body ... we can just keep going.
The Internet essentially killed the entire idea of a single interface or method for consuming information. The Internet made information extremely portable and sharable, and that is now spawning a culture in which everything will be connected, and it won't be about "the fold"; rather, it will be about users' preferences about how, where, when, and on what device they consume their information and contribute their own information back into the system.
Create Once, Publish Everywhere
The conversation needs to be about this new process we are engaged with, and how we will adapt our thinking (as designers, developers, and consultants) to best suit the realities of our new interaction era. This is a reality, folks, and we've gone way past "but do users scroll?". Stop asking the wrong questions, and look at how you are using the Internet and how you prefer to use it. Karen McGrane, a UX expert who recently spoke at An Event Apart in Seattle, discussed NPR's approach to content publication, called COPE: "Create Once, Publish Everywhere." This mindset has allowed NPR to have one of the most successful (and efficient) publication processes—spreading their content in appropriate formats to users who are consuming it in a variety of environments on a variety of devices. NPR gets it. We need to get it too. We all need to ADAPT.
It's not about the words and pictures and where they sit on a page. It's not about those words and pictures and where they sit on a screen. It's about the words and pictures being "consumable" across an ever-widening sea of options.
McGrane refers to this new way of thinking about adaptive content as a "chunk" approach, stating, "Create platform-agnostic chunks first, then determine how best to deploy to a multitude of channels." By removing the page context from our thinking, as designers and UX thinkers, we can begin to explore more important ideas. Ideas about story, audience, participation, context, relevance, and usefulness. Suddenly the idea of meta content becomes exciting again. Classifications and tagging will find a use case! If we can learn to think about content as important information that isn't restricted by a page layout or device format, we can begin to allow the content to become much more useful for the intended audience. Our content will become adaptive only when we learn to think adaptively. This is not a native way for us to think when it comes to content.
The Long Tail showed how the introduction of electronic music formats allowed users to have a much more expansive set of choices, no longer bound by the physical restraints of the record store and its inventory. A similar revolution is happening today with content, and with the publication industry in general. I can remember getting my first MP3 player years ago, and how amazing it was that I could purchase (or download for free from Napster) music and listen to it on this device. I didn't imagine that a few years later I'd be using the same size device to do everything from watch movies to conduct online banking to get breaking news from community-sourced networks in real time.
Think in Chunks
But here we are. Magic is happening again. The question is, are we able to free our minds from conventional and outdated ways of thinking so that we can truly embrace this new era of interaction? I suggest we start by no longer talking about "the fold" and instead start talking about chunks. If you want to call it adaptive content strategy, fine—that sounds nicer. But let's all agree that we aren't talking about electronic newspapers anymore, and let's start figuring out how to adapt our content to this new magical world we live in—a magical world where we aren't limited by the physical device providing the content, and are in fact seeing an exponentially expanding variety of devices, methods, and mashups offering this content up to us. Options are unlimited. Yes, this all requires us to think harder and do more work (sorry). With this great power comes great responsibility. How will you adapt?