Recently, I noticed that msnbc.com changed from having paged articles to a single-page format. The way theirs works, when you get down to the bottom of where they would used to put a link to Page 2, they now have the text fade into the background, and there’s this link that says “Show more text”, and if you click it, it reveals more of the article, and you can continue scrolling down.
I’ve been mulling it over for a few days now, and have come to a conclusion:
I have no idea at all what purpose this change serves.
Paging is an annoyance on most web sites. Browser windows have scroll bars, and it’s usually (almost always) better to simply scroll rather than break to a second page. Web sites often do paging, though, because it gives them the opportunity to display additional advertisements. Some designers will also claim that long scrolling windows are a problem for some readers, who either get intimidated by the length of the document, or are prone to getting “lost” in a sea of unbroken text. And some will say that an overly-long page just messes with the aesthetics of the site’s layout.
This “solution” that msnbc.com is trying offends me, both as a web designer and as a user.
First, and most importantly, as a user:
While I like this better than having to click through paging links, it’s silly to have to click a link to show more text on the same page. When I call up to a web server to request a web page, I want to get the entire thing on page load, and not have to be bothered with interacting with the page in order to make the whole article visible. I want this because it makes it quite easy for me to File->Save As… or File->Print and get the whole thing. Also, should I lose connectivity to the internet, or the server goes down, I don’t worry too much, because I already got the entire article. Lastly, I don’t have to interrupt my train of thought to click a link and wait for more article to be revealed; I can just scroll as I need to, and read the entire window’s worth of content without breaking the stream of the author’s prose. As a user, this is what is important to me.
As a designer:
Scrolling windows is a fine convention, and has been around for about as long as computers have had screens, and itself is based on a technology (the scroll) that goes back millennia. Scrolling isn’t broken. Ergo, it doesn’t need a fix.
What did need a fix was paging. When web sites started to generate revenue from advertising, it became a no-brainer from a business perspective to break up articles into many pages because more pages == more ad impressions == more revenue. But this was always a disservice to the user. Everyone knows it, and if a site abuses it too much and splits up an article into 20 pages of just a paragraph or two per page, people complain about it. Very large hypertextual documents may make sense to page, but the divisions should be sections or chapters, not simply a way to break up an article because it hit a certain word count.
What it seems like to me is that the designers who are working on msnbc.com grew tired of the convention of paging, and wanted to try something else. Probably someone in the design department was still fighting for paging, and used a justification that articles that are “too long” need to be “broken up” somehow in order for them to be “digestible” for today’s ADHD reading audiences. The limited height of the screen already does this, but never mind that. Back in the day, there were wars fought over scrolling vs. paging back in the mid-90’s, and people on either side became emotionally entrenched in their way of looking at how to deal with a lot of text on a page, and since paging largely won that war, politically there’s no way to go back to pure, simple scrolling. But they wanted to do something different, so they brought in this AJAX-y “click to show more text” link at the midpoint of the article. Basically, they’ve conceded that scrolling was better all along, but someone obstinately held on to the idea that not “breaking up” a long article hurts usability. So the “show more text” link is a compromise between the paging camp and the scrolling camp. But it is a no-win compromise, which doesn’t gain anything for the user, and doesn’t do anything for the ad revenue, either.
I think that “show more” links do have a place, but the main content of a page is not it. “Show more” works well on RSS feeds, for example — where there are many articles and no single one is the primary focus for the page. YouTube video description text is another good use of the “show more” link — the video description needs to fit in a small area, and the description is not the main focus for the page — the video is. But the description may be lengthy, and show more/hide works well in that kind of situation.