June 5th, 2018

Why Scroll Hijacking Destroys User Experience

Author: Laura Lynch
Laura Lynch
Director of Marketing

The scroll function is for your users to use—not for you to play with.

It’s no secret that we care about function more than form—especially when it comes to websites and usability. I’m happy for people to “rethink” plenty of basic concepts—innovation has a purpose, and just because something works doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better. But innovation for the sake of novelty isn’t actual innovation. More often than not, it’s an intrusive way to put your own ego over your users.

When it comes to online usability, scroll hijacking is probably the most egregious example of a terrible design feature that gets in the way of how users actually browse web pages.

I noticed this most recently when, while looking for examples for a different blog post, I came across the marketing page for The Disaster Artist. Given that the film itself is meant to depict a creative train wreck, I can only assume the website is supposed to be equally bad.

Take a few seconds to start scrolling down the page, and you’ll see what I mean. Notice how your trackpad isn’t working the way it usually does? That’s scroll hijacking. And yes, it is the worst.

Is my trackpad broken, or is it your web design?

Part of the reason scroll hijacking is such an appalling offense against good web design is that it took years to train users to scroll in the first place. If you think back to your earliest experiences on the web, you may remember having to drag the sidebar up and down the page to see everything on the screen. Scrolling was cumbersome, so web designers avoided incorporating it as much as possible. The first mice that included a scroll wheel in their design where a revelation—a perfect example of innovation doing its job.

However, that was twenty years ago, and scrolling has become more and more a standard way of interacting with online devices—all the more since the advent of touch screens made it a more natural gesture. These days, most experiments with scrolling involve incorporating new gestures on smart trackpads to see what works with users.

So when a user starts scrolling down a page and suddenly the scroll function is interrupted to do something completely different, it’s jarring to say the least. Take the above example: there are two ways in which the Disaster Artist webpage hijacks scrolling: by using it to flip through screens like moving between power point slides, and by forcing the scroll to slow or pause in one place for a longer period.

In this second action, it took me sometimes four or five scroll gestures for the page to begin moving again. It felt like my trackpad had broken. The slid-flip motion was also irritating, in that it visually disrupted the smooth scrolling action I was used to. It took over my ability to freely explore the page, and imposed different mechanics in place of the familiar ones I was used to.

Wait, where are you taking me?

Another classic example of scroll hijacking occurs when the screen starts moving in a different direction, or when the screen changes in an unexpected way, or when the speed and action of the scroll function are altered.

In each of these examples, the user’s ability to comfortably navigate the page has been damaged. This is particularly true in cases where the user can’t access navigation, or when they have no way of skipping down the page. Without these controls, they are at the mercy of the designer, and must use the page exactly the way the designer sees fit.

The problem here is that my trackpad is part of my user interface. I need it to do the things I expect it to do. Otherwise, it’s like trying to type and having different symbols come out. Just as I need my car to move forward when I hit the gas and stop when I hit the breaks, I need my scrollbar to scroll up and down according to how I use them.

I can’t trust my interface if I don’t know what it’s going to do when I use it. If I’m on a website that doesn’t behave the way I need it to behave, then I’m more likely to leave than stay.

Scroll hijacking puts your narrative above user experience. That should never happen.

At its heart, scroll hijacking says to the user “the design and plan I have for my website is more important than the way you want to use it.” This is false.

User experience supersedes your design, your brand story, your products, your images, and your sales process. Whatever narrative you’ve created for the user path on your site should not override their control of their browsing experience. If you need something that finely-tuned, create a video.

You don’t know what your users need when they come to your site. They may need a specific piece of information, or they may have already visited and have already seen your presentation. In all likelihood, any excitement your users experienced over your “creative” design will have diminished by the second or third visit. They won’t keep coming back to see the interesting way you’ve transformed the scrolling function on the products page.

In fact, the more scroll hijacking gets in the way of what they came for, the more likely they are to leave and not come back at all. So stop trying to take over your users controls, and let them use your site in the way that is most natural for them.

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