Smartphones don’t have permanently visible scrollbars. Neither does OSX Lion (unless you’re using a mouse in which case they pop back in). On the phone, there’s a space issue, so the lack of scrollbars seems a good tradeoff. On the desktop, there’s no such space issue. So why the tradeoff?

If Microsoft’s vision for the future — Surface — is any kind of true (and that remains to be seen), soon there will be no desktop. Fine, but tablets do still have room for scrollbars, so why not enable them there?

Let’s look at the pros and cons. On the list of reasons why hiding the scrollbar is a good thing, I have this (and feel free to augment this in the comments):

  • It’s prettier. Less UI is often a good thing. If you don’t miss it, then you have a better experience for it.
  • It’s consistent with phones and tablets (from the same vendor) and gives a sense of coherence.
  • If the future is indeed touchbased (as in: your future desktop is a docked tablet or phone), developers should probably already now start to yank out hover-induced menus and make their scrollpanes indicate overflow when no scrollbar is visible. Having a desktop OS that mimics this, I suppose, is a helpful reminder of what may be coming.

Still, the scrollbar has been around for a while. In fact I would argue it’s a cornerstone in modern GUIs. Such a thing should not be buried willy-nilly. Here are reasons to keep the scrollbar visible at all times:

  • I can think of many ways to indicate that there’s more content to be seen, but none of them are as easy to understand as the scrollbar.
  • A scrollbar doesn’t have to be 18px wide, opaque, with a huge inset gutter, so long as it looks like a scrollbar. In fact, if only Lion scrollbars didn’t fade out completely, this post would probably not have been written.
  • A permanently visible scrollbar, by virtue of its relative height, will sit silently at the side of your view and cue you in how much content remains to be seen. No bottom shadow or clipped content will indicate that. It’s like a minimap of your document.

It’s not that I love scrollbars. Most of them are pretty ugly. Scrollbars, as we’ve grown to know them, can be especially hideous when shown on dark designs. Still, I’m not entirely convinced the solution to this challenge is to hide them. That sounds like mystery meat navigation to me.

5 thoughts on “Scrollbars”

  1. Sometime you have to get rid of one thing to be able to reinvent it.

  2. Chris says:

    Joen, my old friend, (of course I say that just before I lambast you) are you so thick that you’re incapable of managing without a scroll bar?

    Mind you, I’m writing this on my iPad. There was no scroll bar anywhere. It was unnecessary. Why? Because I’m a person living in the 21st century who is accustomed to there being more information beyond what I see initially.

    Scroll bars are a UI crutch for people that didn’t grow up using these devices. If you think they’re still vital then you’re just old (note for the reader, I’m older than Joen).

    As for the idea that I have to scroll to know at all that there’s additional information, people nervously scroll their mice anyway. It is no effort to drag my fingers across a trackpad or a glass screen. Also keep in mind scrollbars started their lives with control arrows. Why, because mice weren’t born with scroll wheels.

    The hardware has changed such that the software can do what it ought to have been doing in the first place. Scrollbars and their accompanying arrows were a hack to get round inadequate to the task hardware interfaces.

    The hardware has caught up, so should you.

    Oh, and mystery meat navigation, to whom is the notion of “scroll down for more” still a mystery? It’s like saying the newspaper should have special instructions informing you to flip the page over because originally people didn’t know there’d be something printed on the backside.

    No one is caught flat footed by a lack of scrollbars. You simply dislike change. Yu fuddy-duddy.

    1. Joen says:

      Well, Chris, you present the opposing viewpoint certainly.

      I disagree, respectfully as always, because the scrollbar not only indicates that there’s more, but it tells you HOW much more. Plus, remember Chris: you DO have a scrollbar — it just auto hides. That’s what I’m objecting to, it hiding completely.

      Imagine for a moment, that it faded out to 20% opacity when you’re idle. You’d keep most of the aesthetics, but you’d have a minimap of where you are in the document, and what remains to be seen, right there.

  3. Jeff Bowen says:

    In my opinion, scrollbars are an imperative in a very long list selector regardless of your selection device. Who really enjoys flicking over & over through a bunch of stuff?

    I’m super impressed with the scrollers on Android which contain the first letter of your place in a long alphabetic list as your’re pulling it down.

    Apple’s big mistake in Lion was to default them to auto-hide based on your type of input device as opposed to your screen size.

    1. Joen says:

      Excellent point about the screen size.

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