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.