Infinite scrolling, or perpetual scrolling, is a website design attribute that loads content as an endless single page. Infinite scrolling saves users from moving between multiple distinct pages (pagination), and it can be good for browsing when users are in the mindset to explore. It can also present a visually appealing design.
A page built for endless scrolling continuously draws on a database as a visitor moves down the page. Social networks often use this design, which works well for a site built with a flat hierarchy. For users who wish to simply consume information, infinite scrolling is perfect.
But this endless page is not good for website accessibility. There are a number of issues with user experience for disabled browsers in general, but its impact on sight-impaired users is especially problematic.
Impact on Website Accessibility
Navigation and search options become limited after users begin scrolling, especially when using assistive technology. That’s because these navigational tools are usually kept “above the fold,” or the portion of the page that’s visible upon arrival. When content is continuously loaded, visually impaired users who rely on screen readers and keyboard commands have a difficult time navigating the screen and searching for specific content.
For example, the “back” button that used to take users to a previous screen no longer functions appropriately, making it impossible for a screen reader to locate previously accessed content.
Infinite scrolling also presents several difficulties for physically disabled users:
- Inability to quickly navigate page contentSites with news feeds that provide infinite scrolling might be filled with additional links, forcing users to navigate through the active elements for each feed, making efficient navigation a challenge.
- Difficulty locating content Screen readers might not render content that moves off the screen as the user scrolls down, so screen-reading users might have difficulty locating content using their reader’s search features or navigation keystrokes.
- Inability to get to the end of pageAs continuous content is fed to the user, assistive equipment users face a challenge of getting to the bottom of a page. For instance, the CTRL+End keyboard command will not function properly in most cases.
- Inability to access footer content Because getting to the end of a page becomes challenging, assistive technology users have difficulty identifying and navigating to the footer.
Anyone contemplating perpetual scrolling, should be aware of the provisions that protect website accessibility for physically impaired users. Before website designers and developers build a site, they should know and consider standards under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and W3C’s WCAG 2.0 recommendation: Checkpoint 2.4.5 “The intent of this Success Criterion is to make it possible for users to locate content in a manner that best meets their needs. Users may find one technique easier or more comprehensible to use than another.”
One option is to limit automatic infinite scrolling with a “load more results…” button or a link that explicitly invites the user to add more content. That action can then be read by a screen reader or responded to with a keyboard command.
In the end, a website designed for pagination is often the best choice. The navigation and search functionality available makes it much easier for all web users to experience the page content.