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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

The truth about scroll and swipe: The real value of mobile’s most famous features

March 9, 2020 | By Jon Fletcher, Content Editor – Marfeel @Marfeel

The world of mobile is built on scroll and swipe actions. Addictive and habit forming, infinite scroll became the defining characteristic of social media networks for a time. Clicking is making a decision. Scroll is an everlasting stream of possibilities.

Readers do love to scroll. However, it is also a better way to read and digest long content. Usability studies by the Software Usability Research Laboratory show that users can read long, scrolling pages faster than paginated ones. And they absorb the same level of information from the content.

Participants using the paging condition took significantly longer to read the passages than either the full or scrolling conditions. They stated that they found the Paging condition to be “too broken up,” and that they had to “go back and forth” quite a bit to search for information.’

Publishers, hoping to establish the kind of enthralled readership seen on social media, built infinite scroll and swipe navigation into their UIs, expecting readers to drip through page after page of their content. Scroll and swipe seemed to be purpose-built for news and entertainment sites.

Unfortunately, the results of scroll and swipe for publishers didn’t hit the mark. 

A bottomless pit

Infinite scroll gave readers a bottomless pit of publishers’ content. But dig into the data and you can see that most readers are still only skimming the surface of the content. According to the readership data studied here at Marfeel, we find that 75% of readers never get beyond 10% scroll depth in an article.

Here you can see how ‘content chunks’ are added to the scroll to give readers escape points to new content. These cues are easy to digest, understandable, and have a simple navigation.

Content may have infinite depth. But even engaged readers are unlikely to ever stray from the shallow-end.

When it comes to publisher content, if a reader is not engaged, they are unlikely to continue scrolling. So, if your recirculation strategy relies on readers scrolling past the bottom of an article, you’re losing out on 80% of your audience.

With swipe, the results aren’t as damning but still deeply flawed. Swipe has been shown to potentially increase page views per session by over 400% for some publishers. However, only about 20% of readers ever discover it.

Infinite scroll needs structure, variation, and novelty

Infinite scroll works so well on social media because the content and the formats change on every swipe. You’re rolling the dice for another chance at entertainment. On a publishers’ site, a swipe may just lead to another few paragraphs of content.

Traversing this dead-zone is cognitive work. There’s a lower dopamine response from making a judged evaluation on a longer article or piece of content. Faced with a paragraph of dense analysis on Euribor inflation before the next crumb of content is offered up, a reader’s first instinct will be to leave the page, not continue.

A Chartbeat report found only “slight evidence” infinite scroll contributes to deeper scroll depth, but no definitive evidence that infinite scroll improves depth of visit.

For infinite scroll to work for publishers, varied and exciting content is key. It needs to be digestible as single-scan content chunks. Users must be able to look at once and make a decision about whether they want to read or not.

Grouped titles, images, and instantly understandable content give readers more bursts of information they can use to make quick decisions. These atoms make up a proposition that a user can decide to delve into or keep scrolling. Publishers need to spot scroll-stopping points and introduce alternative exits at these points to keep readers engaged. Writing in Psychology Today, Susan Weinschenk explains, ‘If there is a small, specific cue that signifies that something is going to happen, that sets off our dopamine system’. UI/UX cues that more content is available become a dinner bell that connects to a Pavlovian response inside us.’

Without these cues, infinite scroll becomes an endless litany that unengaged readers will choose to leave rather than find the end. With these tools, publishers can reconsider scroll depth as their most crucial metric and start focusing on recirculating readers, which techniques such as ‘inline articles’ as seen above can increase recirculation by an average of 60%.

Take a lesson from Tinder on swiping

Swipe removed pagination from the mobile experience. However, not every reader discovers it in mobile publishers’ content. Imagine a world where only 20% of visitors to Tinder realized they had swipe for more content.

Apps such as Tinder and TikTok are built around swipe because they make it explicit. Publishers’ audiences are not expecting to swipe, rather follow the sections and pagination of traditional news sites. Publishers that have managed to make swipe work for them use clear and simple UI cues that make swipe a logical and intuitive cue.

Another major difference in what swipe offers us – compared with clicking new content, changing pages, or switching apps – is that we’re unsure of risk/reward ratio. And this can deliver higher rewards than evaluating decisions.

Provided we have some information about a user’s tastes, such as broad interests, swiping to a new article in a relevant or category or similar topic can even be more rewarding than choosing a new link based on rational decision-making. To do this, swipe needs to be integrated with cues to show that swipe is the intended action. As it is not yet a natural motion on content sites, this behavior needs to be taught and established.

By re-working these born-mobile techniques, publishers can re-define swipe to make it a more natural and established action. This will help publishers turn swipe and scroll from well-intentioned but ineffective tools into powerful and essential components of any content-based UI.

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