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Are you designing for something that isn’t there anymore?

When I started doing web stuff in the 1990’s, I remember it being very much a “Wild West” kind of realm, with few hard and fast guidelines or rules (which is why sites made with GeoCities could get away with looking incredibly awful and still be “cool”).  Everyone was experimenting with creating for the World Wide Web, and nobody really knew where the boundaries were.

Despite that, there was one rule everybody knew.  You were supposed to put the most important stuff “above the fold.”  Meaning, at the top of the computer (no mobile devices in the day) screen, so people would see it before they were forced to scroll. We all knew that scrolling was bad; something nobody liked to do, so we avoided it like the plague.

Except…the Web, of course, changed. More importantly, the devices on which people viewed the Web changed.  Now, a designer has no idea how a particular website will be viewed. Sure, you can break it down into broad categories:  smartphone, tablet, desktop. But even within those groups are subsets and mutations and different browsers and…let’s be honest, nobody can know exactly what kind of environment a website might end up in.  Responsive design is now the norm (and it’s not easy), and what happened to that “don’t put important stuff below the fold” rule?

Because, now?  There’s no more fold. Not really.  Not that you can pin down.  Want a concrete example?  Take a look at this.  If you’re a web designer, it’s the kind of thing that might make you cry a little.

What does this mean to me, Laura?

  • People scroll.  On mobile devices especially, they expect to scroll.  Even on the desktop, scrolling is hardly the evil it was once purported to be.
  • You still need to put the most important stuff at the top. But now, you have to consider what the “top” is, based on device.  Logo, main navigation, search should still be at the top, even on the smallest device. After that, it will depend on your site’s particular content and what you prioritize.
  • Rules change. The Web continues to evolve at a pace that virtually no one can keep up with.  We have to change too, or get frustrated trying to apply rules that no longer apply