Etsy, the infinite scroll, and lessons for non-profit websites

InfinityWorking at a company that helps organizations figure out how to stay focused when wandering the candy store that is Web technology can be full of interesting anecdotes.  Mostly, it includes stories of accidental techies doing the best they can to make sense of this Web-3-dot-whatever world we’re living in, and trying to find ways to best bring in more donation dollars to support their cause.

Sometimes, this means that the shiny new toys which larger companies play with seem to be an absolute necessity when it comes to their own small non-profit website.  This is completely understandable.  We live in an upgrade-right-now world, where even our web browsers seem to update on a daily basis, often times without us knowing it.

We try to help organizations avoid the shine of the latest fad and focus on raw efficiency gains.  That’s why a Web lesson learned from the good folks at Etsy (fellow B Corporation!) struck a chord with me.  When Etsy implemented the “infinite scroll” in their A/B testing, their findings were really quite interesting.

What’s an infinite scroll you ask?  It’s what happens when you’re looking at search results on sites like Google Images, where as you scroll to what seems to be the bottom of the page, and then all the sudden, wham, more results start to appear.

The vertical scroll is infinitely long!

Okay, back to the lesson at hand.  What Etsy ended up finding is that while the infinite scroll is definitely trending strongly in web design communities, it’s not a tool that you can blindly apply to any website and expect it to actually improve user satisfaction.  In fact, in the case of Etsy, it seemed to cause users to avoid taking the preferred route through the Etsy website.

What does this have to do with non-profit websites?  Quite a bit.  Here’s a few important lessons we can learn from the Etsy case study on the infinite scroll.

Don’t assume the newest website trend is good for your site’s visitors

The main reason why the Etsy infinite scroll functionality failed is because it seemed to interrupt or cause problems to the most important feature of the Etsy site:  search.  Many organizations are quick to latch on to trending technologies, but often don’t take an opportunity to lead first with a strategy to deploy, then choose the technology as the right tool to help them reach their goal.  Work backwards, and you can find yourself paying lots of money for a functionality that doesn’t aid your intended visitor actions.

Test, test, and then test some more

We can call this Etsy infinite scroll functionality a “failure”, and the Etsy folks can smile and say, “a good failure”.  Why?  Because they didn’t just accept that this new technology trend was best for their users and suddenly spring this new functionality onto their entire community.  They took the time to do pretty specific A/B testing with small cohorts to determine what works best based on empirical data, not gut instincts.

I know what you’re thinking:  ”Etsy is a huge corporation with lots of users, we can’t do A/B testing on our sites.”  Well, it’s probably true that Etsy has a larger tech team than your organization, but free tools like Google Content Experiments make it a bit easier for your team to start by testing content to see what effect it might have on goals like donations, petition signings, etc.  Regardless of your organization’s size, always experiment, and always test.

Keep in mind the mobile website user

One of the commenters in the blog post above makes a great point about mobile devices and the infinite scroll. In responsive design, websites are designed in such a way that their columns gracefully degrade down to, say, one column.  In doing this, the website designer needs to make some choices as to where those sidebar elements are going to end up when viewed on a mobile site.  Where do they typically go?  Below the main content or focus of the page.

What happens when you toss in an infinite scroll on a site viewed on a mobile device?  A “race to the bottom” trying to see the sidebar elements that have been moved to the bottom of the screen before the automated new items start popping in.  Needless to say, just make sure whatever you’re doing, you’re testing out its user experience in a mobile device as well.

While there might be very good reasons to consider using the latest technology fad, make sure that the decision to do so is first led by strategy, and then is fully tested, taking into account both desktop and mobile visitors.  Follow these steps and you’ll be on the path to increasing donor dollars…rather than just implementing a cool but not effective technology.

Photo credit:  paurian on Flickr

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 9th, 2013 at 8:42 pm and is filed under design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Etsy, the infinite scroll, and lessons for non-profit websites”

  1. [...] Reduction. Mobile device users hate having to scroll endlessly to get to things. Minimize scrolling by having just one or two questions per page, keeping instructions and question wording as brief as [...]

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