Schrödinger’s content: how empty space can improve the usability of your website
Ah, the dreaded fold. That demon bisector that cuts across your site at the bottom of your user’s screen; a chasm into which your precious content is cast, never to return.
All that time you spend crafting wonderful design features, only for it all to be wasted, simply because your user is unwilling to scroll their screen by a few inches.
Us UX designers live in fear of the fold.
This fear drives us to cram as much information as is physically possible into one rectangular area. We add side-boxes, toolbars, pop-ups, drop-down menus, concertinas, links off the page, content previews, hover-overs and, worst of all, video.
We beg and plead with customers to download our app, which offers no more functionality than our mobile site, but lets us optimise the space.
Heck, we’ll even ask users to email or call us for more information. Anything to avoid the eldritch horror that lives beneath the fold and preys on the content that is deposited there, ripping it to shreds and devouring it with sawblade teeth rotating in a tentacled maw.
The fact that we named the evil fold after the midpoint of a newspaper front page, whereafter the copy would be concealed when the paper was folded in half for presentation on newsstands, shows just how old this concept is.
The lengths we used to go to in order to prevent the loss of relevant content in that place no user ever goes are now outdated too.
Look at the development of social media. The first real platform was MySpace, a similarly horrific concept allowing complete personalisation of your homepage.
You could put your favourite song’s lyrics in a big old text box while you incessantly blare the same song on a loop from the moment the page loads to when the viewer closes it in disgust; add some photos of your terrible emo haircut and shoddily painted black nailpolish; then finish with the customary starscape background to make you stand out from all the other profiles with starscape backgrounds. Not to mention, the rotating, neon clipart…
Letting users fully customise their site interface led to some of the worst crimes in the history of web design; all because users didn’t know where to stop, which is why one of the most valuable skills a UX designer can learn is how to hold back on the clutter.
Skeuomorphism and flat design
When the web was new, we didn’t really have the technology or skill to do any design work. The internet came as it was. Next, we attempted skeuomorphism, making our web tools look like their real-life counterparts. Queue 3D-looking calculators and wood veneer desktop backgrounds.
Finally, we began to simplify and moved onto flat design. Big, bold, un-patterned colours and a significant reduction in MySpace insanity.
Then, Twitter launched its Medium blogging platform…
While perhaps the most popular platform left that is intended solely for blogging and nothing else, Medium is still generally a failure. Alas, it arrived at precisely the time that blogging stopped being a thing. This is mainly due to Facebook’s notorious 2015 fudging of data to make it look like video was massively outperforming every other type of media on the internet.
Nevertheless, shortly after Twitter’s own blogging platform was launched, blogging was banished to the wasteland of history and died lost and alone in the desert. However, Medium does have one very pertinent legacy – white space.
I have said many, many times that the perfect website would be a single, white page with a single button in the centre that says ‘click here’. Anything you add to that template is a compromise on quality.
Each page of your site should, ideally, have a single function – one call to action for your user, leading them down one path on their user journey. That takes guts to do. There’s no room to hide there. There’s no hedging your bets between user A and user B. You won’t capture unconverted leads with an option to sign up to a newsletter. Sink or swim. Ride or die.
When it works, however, your page having one function REALLY works. Simply, this is because the worst thing you can ever do as a UX designer is make your user think. You want your site to be so intuitive that a toddler can use it. If it takes your user a fraction of a second to look for what they have to do next, then your user journey has hit a pothole and their experience is disrupted.
Now, I’m not going to claim this is the end of the world. That one bump is not going to hurt your conversion, but think of it like those electrical mazes you can get as kids’ toys. The ones with the metal loop with the wire on a stick around it. You move the wire around the metal and try not to let it touch. If you get close, it might fizzle a little, but you’re okay; twice, however, three times or full-on contact and you’ve set off that buzzer. Game over, man.
Don’t make me think
If your page has one function, then your user doesn’t even have to choose, let alone think. Now, this doesn’t really have to be as drastic as one button and nothing else, but it can be one button with a little bit of supporting text explaining what the button does.
The page’s function could even be a 15,000-word essay you want your user to read – that’s still one function. If you add an advert, a link to related content, an option to contact the author and a store to buy their book, you’ve ruined it. Maybe not completely, but you’ve reduced the usability of your page. In 99% of cases, that’s unavoidable, but it should always be the goal to stick to the fewest possible functions and elements.
Keep your voice down
Let’s say you succeed, though. You have one, single button on your page, maybe with a little supporting text and a call to action, but by-and-large, it’s just the one function. Surely, you want to make that button enormous, eye-catching and attention-grabbing, yes? No. No, don’t do that.
Just as CAPITAL LETTERS IN TEXT denote shouting, so gargantuan items on a web page are aggressive. Bombarding your users with giant page furniture is just as cacophonic as an emo MySpace page.
Take a breath. Put on your smoking jacket. Pour yourself a small glass of sherry and sit in your most-comfortable leather arm chair. Lean back and look at your site. Refuse to abandon your reclination and casually stretch an arm out to add a subtle and reserved button to your page.
It would be awfully lovely if your users were to click it, but you’re not going to cause a scene about it. You are, after all, a gentleperson. You have a modicum of class.
… and breathe
That’s why keeping that button small and giving it a little white, empty space around it is so effective. It lets your site breathe. It makes it seem relaxed, casual, simple. The simpler your site, the more it converts. Too much clutter means too much to process; just stick to what you need and give it plenty of space and you’ll get somewhere with your users.
Think of it like this: if you wanted to speak to a sales assistant in a shop, even if you’re just ordering a white Americano to go, would that be easier to do in a big, empty space with no-one but you and the assistant in sight, like a very quiet Apple store; or on the London Central Line at 9am on Monday morning?
If your site has one function and gives your users clear, empty space for them to process that call-to-action without distraction, you’re going to see your conversion rates increase. Best of all, if there’s only one clear path through your page, you don’t need to worry about the demon fold, as your users have nowhere to go but down.
Don’t take my word for it, though. All successful sites use plenty of white space – Medium, yes, but also Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Squarespace, Quip and Dropbox.
If you want your site to convert, make sure your content can breathe. If you want to carry your user to the end of the user journey, don’t make them hunt through your page looking for the right path. Simple as that.
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Neil Sheppard has been a UX copywriter and content strategist for nearly a decade. Starting out as a pharmaceutical stock markets journalist, Neil quickly moved into digital copywriting, managing a team optimising product content for a busy commercial website. Nowadays, Neil helps companies create easy-to-use internal websites and digital employee manuals that make complex processes simple for everyone from CEOs to service desk agents.