Fearing the fold

Paul Boag

Its funny how challenging one preconception can leave you totally inspired. I am in the process of reading a book called CSS Zen Garden by Molly Holzschlag and David Shea based on David’s superb site. While reading the book and browsing the associated site I couldn’t help noticing that many of the designs were incredibly long and had little in the way of valuable content above the fold.

The preconception

Now somewhere along the line I had got it into my head that any content of value had to be kept above the fold (so users could see it without scrolling) when running at 800 by 600. In effect this mean ‘t almost all of your content had to be crammed into an area approximately 770 pixels by 430 pixels. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for decorative elements, let alone white space. As a result my designs often looked overly busy.

The usability question

Now just because another designer chooses to ignore a principle like keeping content above the fold doesn’t necessarily make it right. If that was the case then we would all still be using mystery meat navigation! But it did start me thinking about whether the principle still held true.

With that in mind I did a little research and came across this interesting article from Jakob Nielsen the well known usability "guru". He said:

In more recent studies, we have seen that most users scroll when they visit a long home page or a long navigation screen. This change in behaviour is probably due to users getting more experience with scrolling Web pages.

Although he goes on to say that it is still good practice to keep navigation above the fold he does add:

…scrolling is no longer a usability disaster for navigation pages. Scrolling still reduces usability, but all design involves trade-offs, and the argument against scrolling is no longer as strong as it used to be .

What is more this report was written back in 1997 so there is no reason to believe that users have not become even more comfortable with the idea of scrolling in order to find content.

Where is the fold?

Obviously the other question here is, was I right in my assumption that I only had approximately 430 pixels of height to work with above the fold. This number is dictated by three factors:

  • The browser the user is working with
  • The screen resolution they are running at
  • Any additional toolbars they might be using as part of their operating system

To be honest it is hard to predict the first and last of those factors however there are some good statistics on screen resolution. I looked at several sources of statistics but probably the most representative was those found at thecounter.com as this site has stats on the widest range of users. As of May 2005 their stats showed the following trend:

  • 56% of users running at 1024×768
  • 28% of users running at 800×600
  • 8% of users running at 1280×1024

Another site stated:

The current trend is that more and more computers are using a screen size of 1024×768 pixels


It is apparent that the prevailing trend is towards 1024×768 but 28% of people still running at 800×600 cannot be ignored. However I do believe that the shift is significant enough to warrant some more flexibility in design. Combined with Jakob Neilsen’s testing on scrolling I believe it is fair to conclude that as long as users running at 800×600 don’t have to scroll sideward (in other words the width of your site doesn’t exceed approximately 770 pixels) then we can safely expect them to scroll vertically for content.