This week’s Alert Box column takes up the question of scrolling and scrollbars. Nielsen makes two core points in this column:
– Sites should never scroll horizontally (horizontal scrolls are “abominations”!), and
– Scrollbars should always be recognizable as scrollbars
From a usability perspective, these points are hard to dispute. We certainly wouldn’t argue with the second point as this is a key frustration of Flash design (i.e. uniquely designed scrollbars that are impossible to find or use). But, regarding the first point, we’ve done a fair amount of thinking on the issue of horizontal scrolling and the related questions of screen resolution (or, if you prefer, “viewport size”) and advertising-friendly page layouts.
More than thinking, we have helped many of our clients think through the options and tradeoffs inherent in specifying a target viewport size for a new design. And we wrote a pretty nifty white paper on the subject — with pictures!
So, from the point of view of the practical application of design theories, we feel pretty good about our credentials on this point. And this is why we feel compelled to point out (with all appropriate deference to Usability’s Prime Mover) that the absolute view expressed in this column ignores (or glosses over) some key web design realities. Namely: in a world where users will access your site through a variety of viewport sizes, the only way to insure that no user ever encounters a horizontal scrollbar is to design for the narrowest viewport setting (probably something less than 800 pixels wide). While this is certainly one valid approach, there are a lot of good reasons to consider alternatives — most of which are covered in our paper, so we won’t repeat them here. Some of these reasons stem from a compelling business need to extract maximum value from each available screen pixel (even if some of those pixels may, for some users, require horizontal scrolling to be viewed). Nielsen insists that “users hate horizontal scrolling.” To this we say: users hate a lot of things that they find confusing or wasteful (including, in many cases, lots of blank space to the left and right of an 800 pixel-width page viewed through a 1024 pixel-width viewport). Design “rules” are great, but it’s not always easy to obey the rules and still accomplish all the business goals for the design. No designer can equally serve the masters of usability, aesthetics, and economics. In our experience, really good design (that is design that effectively accomplishes whatever its purpose may be) is born out of compromise.
So, okay, pile on…