Why I Hate Pagination

A new proposed set of CSS standards for paged content has got the web development community all atwitter. Webmonkey wrote a thoughtful piece about it:

At its core, the Paged Media standard offers web developers a way to paginate content — that is, take a single webpage and break it into multiple “pages,” with each page automatically fitted to the screen size of the device you’re using. For example, this article might be three “pages” when viewed on an iPad. However, because the pagination is done with CSS and the HTML remains as it is, there’s no added load time when you flip to the next page. So it’s not a tool that can easily be abused by publishers to mine extra pageviews. It adds all the good things about multi-page layouts and none of the bad.

My initial response was not a happy one. The truth is—I hate pagination.

I hate it when I visit a news website and have to click through multiple pages to read a short article. I hate that it’s used to boost page views and advertising impressions. I hate that organizations put their needs ahead of the users’—it just feels icky.

Another common case of pagination I’ve noticed is in a tutorial setting. I’ve worked my way through hundreds of online tutorials (it’s kind of a must for web developers). Most of these present the entire tutorial in a single page, but I’ve run across many where each step was presented on a separate page. Instructables is a repeat offender of this.

Instructables realizes that clicking to get through 15 simple steps is obnoxious. So one perk of being a Pro member, who chips in a few bucks a month, is the option to view all steps on one page. (It’s a genius business plan.)

Last month, Google declared its preference for one-page search results:

to improve the user experience, when we detect that a content series (e.g. page-1.html, page-2.html, etc.) also contains a single-page version (e.g. page-all.html), we’re now making a larger effort to return the single-page version in search results. … Interestingly, the cases when users didn’t prefer the view-all page were correlated with high latency (e.g., when the view-all page took a while to load, say, because it contained many images). This makes sense because we know users are less satisfied with slow results.

As much as I would love to maintain my prejudice against this defenseless utility, I have to stop myself and ask: Is pagination always bad? When is pagination good? Do I also hate pagination in search results? Aren’t there situations where pagination makes sense?

The Webmonkey piece shows a paginated online book—I’d love to read HTML-based books online as paginated content. And I prefer to have my Google results paginated, instead of getting 270,000 listings in one page. The advent of infinite scrolling on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr seems to suggest the web is moving away from pagination. (And it’s certainly a topic being discussed by many user experience experts.)

Like so many things, pagination can be used for both good and evil. But all my pagination angst gets me thinking about other web trends I hate in a knee-jerk way. I loathe entry pages to web sites, sites that resize my browser and sites that autoplay music. [Editor's note: There is never an excuse for autoplay music.] But at the end of the day, I think it’s wise to step back and reconsider the things we hate—our prejudices could eliminate potential solutions to problems.

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