The pain of pagination

January 23, 2010

It’s always worth re-visiting ‘best practices’ that are for the most part never being really questioned. Pagination is a good example. While discussing pagination with developers, I got the impression that it is (or it used to be) a best practice for technical reasonsmore than it is based on actual user insight. There are some obvious (technical) benefits of returning database query results in chunks: it allows quick page load, saves bandwidth, server resources, and energy. It allows designers to apply efficient page grids and to send relevant information into the footer. Oh, and it adds some page-impressions to your SEO statistics.

But what about the user? From what I see and hear in usability test session, users don’t like it and don’t really use it. Although modeled on the simple and very familiar pattern of turning book pages (well, may be not that familiar anymore?), pagination works well only for users who are willing to make an effort. Page-turning on the Web is a complex operation involving a series of cognitive and physical steps: understanding the idea of pagination, allocating the pagination bar, understanding the next step required (where am I and where do I want to go), locating and hitting a (more often than not) tiny link.

Most users seem to be satisfied with a limited number of results anyway. This is certainly true for Google-like search results or for all other ‘transient data’ (Scott 2009, p. 155), where data further down the line become less relevant for the user. But what, for example, if you want to check this season’s trendiest trainers that happen to be a list of 123 items in no particular order – and you don’t want to miss any of them? Comparing items across different pages is painful and ineffective. The product pages of the Adidas online shop employ an alternative to pagination that addresses user needs without straining server resources. Content is incrementally loaded on demand, i.e. when the user scrolls through the page. With a bit of buffer, this works very well. Incremental page load (or yahoo-style crolling) requires new thinking around page-layout and meaningful tools, but for many use cases it promises the end of clumsy page poking and the pain of pagination.

Other examples:
Globrix property search
Artists page of Bandcamp (combining incremental page load with pagination)

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