If you ask a web designer or online media professional what “below the fold” means, they may give you a blank stare. But those of us who cut our teeth in print media know that “below the fold” refers to a story that’s important enough to make the front page, but not important enough to make the top half of the page. This is the part visible in a newspaper rack, or on a stack of newspapers at a news stand. Too see the stories “below the fold” of the newspaper, a reader would have to buy the paper, or at least flip it over. Therefore, these stories stood less chance of being seen.
How does the concept of “below the fold” translate to online media? Not well. For one, it’s very difficult to design a web page that looks more or less the same across a variety of devices and browsers. Due to screen resolutions that vary from those appropriate to a 27” inch monitor all the way down to a mobile phone, websites are compressed, smashed, stretched and rendered in all sorts of unknowable and uncontrollable ways. The user’s own browser settings come into play as well: for example, whether or not they allow websites to choose their own fonts and font sizes, or if they run screen-altering plugins like ad blockers.
How does the concept of “below the fold” translate to online media? Not well.
Some companies have taken this to mean that they have to be very careful about where they place their most important information, lest it be hidden beneath the virtual fold; or, in other words, somewhere off-screen where it’s not likely to be seen.
However, it’s important to understand that online media-savvy users, who make up a larger and larger part of the workforce as the baby boomers retire and the millennials begin to move up in the ranks, aren’t intimidated by what some might see as an uncontrollable and chaotic web space. They don’t mind clicking below the fold at the bottom of the page. They don’t mind scrolling. They probably see repeated menu links at the top and bottom of the page as redundant and simply in the way as they look for the information they need.
In fact, creating pages that require scrolling and a little “poking around” can actually increase engagement, length of time spent on the page, and influence all kind of metrics in a positive way. (See the website uxwmyths.com for information on this and more web design myths.)
But one thing remains true—there has to be content. All the scrolling, clicking and finger gestures will only prove fruitless and discouraging if visitors can’t find what they need. Cyberspace, as always, is rapidly changing, and we’re learning as we go when it comes to human behavior and digital media.
The upshot: don’t let your traditional assumptions about media like “below the fold” influence the design of your website. Get help from the pros, who can take your content and make the most of it.