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Music + Technology + Random Nonsense from the Music Industry by Ethan Kaplan, VP Product, Live Nation

Why is it so hard to grasp scrolling?

My background comes from publishing, which means when I think of the web, I think of it as its constituent part (pages) rather than as a collection of interlinking screens. The problem with this is when putting Internet into an old school entertainment company, there is this instrinsic desire to marry ones self to the nasty, ubiquitous ratio of 4:3.

Witness:

Picture 11-1
Picture 12
Muse, Superman. Why? 4:3 aspect ratios, no conformance to the exceptions of the page. Rather, its use of the screen as a medium, instead of a page. This discussion came up today when we were discussing in the office scrolling pages vs. pages with iFrames vs. pages with just a Flash movie. The argument was whether or not the page should scroll. Creative (understandably) wants the pretty headers to remain up top the entire time, and have static visual elements. My self and the tech team wants to conform to the user interface that is given and the expectations of the user. It boils down to Human Computer Interaction. Scrolling is an endemic paradigm, not something we should subjugate for the purpose of aesthetics.

Here is my argument. Why are our MySpace pages more popular than artist sites? I think the difference comes down to the compliance with expectation. MySpace pages are regimented to structure, and thus the visual element is competing for individuality. In this case, the visual identity is strong out of necessity in order to differentiate themselves aesthetically if not structurally.

Art, good art at least, is born out of the desire to break out of boundaries imposed by media, but never quite getting there. The Art is not necessarily in the result, but the ways in which that art was achieved. In the film Five Obstructions, Lars von Trier gives his mentor Jorgen Leth “obstructions” in the re-imagining of his film The Perfect Human. What transpires is interesting, because the obstructions serve to complicate the situation of making a work, to the point where the obstructions themselves become more important than the resultant work.

MySpace is a big obstruction. It is an obstruction as big as poverty/heroin was to punk, and insanity was to Basquiat. And born out of that obstruction is a desire for expression that is akin to punk music and subway paintings tinged with paranoia. The problem with artist websites therefor is that no one really imposed any obstructions. The budgets were there, the bandwidth was there, the page was a blank canvas on to which any desire from any part was put up without concern for the ability to continually draw, or progressively involve.

I believe in obstructions, as well as I believe in standards. The Internet was founded as, and should remain a system on which people agree to agree for the sake of a better good, not simply wrap the conformance with substrates that enable a more “free” form of expression. I’m looking at you Flash. I’m looking at you client-side Java.

Flash is like retrofitting a perfectly good industrial building. Sure, its not pretty, but with the right tools, the right people and the right knowledge, it can be made into anything you’d like it to be. 100% flash, 4:3 websites, and their ilk are the gaudy exteriors on otherwise serviceable canvases. Not necessary, and terribly tacky.

The interface we use, and the paradigm in which it exists is something that is not an accidental creation. The human mind has adapted to the metaphors inspired out of Engelbart’s presentation: the browser, the mouse, point and click. It is an obstruction that exists to ensure that the Internet remains what it should be, which is a universalized, agnostic mechanism of transport for digital information. The representational element (the browser/renderer) is likewise subject to standardization to ensure that the information remains agnostic down to the photon level. Meaning of course is not agnostic, but if noise is minimized along the transmission chain, Information (in the Claude Shannon sense) is only inserted between screen and human, as it should be.

Flash sites [1], etc are basically saying “Here is how you SHOULD think of what I am presenting.” It leaves nothing up to conformance. It inserts noise midway through the causal chain of point and click, and by the time the information hits the retina, its subjugated under masses of imposition and pretension.

So for the sake of information, let us scroll.

Long live XHTML.
Long live CSS.

[1] I have no problem with Flash as a whole. Stamen design, Digg’s new interface, Pandora, etc use it to great effect. I used Flash pre-Macromedia people.

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25 Responses

  1. I remember hearing that Disney’s first web foray was pages of 200k image maps because the creative people were adamant that all Disney media be the proper font.

    Ethan, something you didn’t mention was what else you “get” with having a non-flash site. You get the possiblility of someone using your text to promote your own work on their site (MySpace or otherwise). You get to plugin to the web browser’s “send url” capability. You get your site to be at least marginally functional on mobile devices.

    It’s frustrating to see people lose all that when they create a monolithic flash app.

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  3. Joel says:

    Flash. Bah. I can’t stand it…. I tried to load a popular sports site on my MDA for a friend, to check the scores, and of course couldnt see a damn thing… the entire “content” of the site was done in flash.

  4. mikey says:

    Thanks Ethan, excellent rant er muse.

    I hope you don’t mind if I quote you to clients. I couldn’t say it as well as you did.

  5. minijonb says:

    The Five Obstructions was an amazing movie. I’ve never thought of how it applies to web standards and user design… until now. Great post.

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  8. Let your users scroll…

    Designers that create fixed size layouts seem afraid to let the page scroll. Afraid to let the Web be the Web and behave like the Web….

  9. [...] Natuurlijk zullen de “vaste afmetingen websites” niet alleen gemaakte worden door onkunde in webdesign, maar door bepaalde keuzes die ontwerpers maken. Een interessant voorbeeld hiervan is afkomstig van Ethan Kaplan: The argument was whether or not the page should scroll. Creative (understandably) wants the pretty headers to remain up top the entire time, and have static visual elements. My self and the tech team wants to conform to the user interface that is given and the expectations of the user. It boils down to Human Computer Interaction. Scrolling is an endemic paradigm, not something we should subjugate for the purpose of aesthetics. [...]

  10. The only good use of Flash that I can think of is here:

    http://www.teagames.com/

    ;-)

    / Anders Tornblad

  11. Alex says:

    I think it not only comes down to “Flash is bad”, because we all know good examples of flash as long as it does not constitute the whole interface. However, the scrolling thing is something that a lot of researchers told you about some years ago… Do not extend the information on a page to places where people don’t see them at once (imagine how much space you have on a 800×600 display…). This applied for company websites as well as e-learning (I’m involved in the latter).

    There has been a paradigm shift as far as I can tell, away from “don’t let them scroll” to “it’s ok to let them scroll as long as they can see that there is something more down there”. However, in e-learning sites you still have to keep all information where learners can see it in order to make shure that they don’t miss important information. But I think that users are more and more capable to figure out how to scroll these days.

    As always, there is no in-depth study (i mean with more than 10 users) as of today about how users really behave on pages like muse vs myspace. At least I don’t know of one. If somebody does, please let me know… I am really really interested in empirical research concerning this problem.

  12. Richard says:

    What a convoluted mess. Neither the title nor the “argument” have much to do with the content of the piece, which is a winding road of promoting usability, standards, and free exchange on the web. That’s fine, but good design and those topics aren’t mutually exclusive.

    And MySpace, while being a good example of free exchange is a horrible, horrible example of standards and usability. I can’t say I’ve ever heard anyone say “I like MySpace because I can scroll.”

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  15. [...] Why is it so hard to grasp scrolling? at blackrimglasses.com (tags: scrolling flash design) [...]

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