Search Usability - Infinite Scroll vs Pagination

Recently Etsy, the big handmade marketplace, underwent an interesting A/B testing experiment on their search results page. They replaced normal pagination with infinite scroll and observed how user engagement in search dropped quickly. They concluded they should revert back to the old pagination ASAP.

But sales actually didn't drop. It seems that people just found other ways to find the products they were looking for. Why did users reject infinite scroll? We believe that, although they probably didn't find it slower or uncool, they obviously found that search wasn't as useful as before. It just seemed like it didn't meet their needs.

So what are the users needs within a search page? Users need to quickly find the products they're looking for. So quicker access to infinite products surely does sound like a pretty, pretty good idea. Wait! Something is wrong here.

What people really need is a tool to help them find what they're looking for in the most efficient manner. Let's take quick look over how customer would like to achieve this goal most of the time. As we all know, the more options there are out there, the harder it becomes for us to achieve satisfaction, the more we need to look through them, and the more we need to think about which one to pick. Pretty complicated stuff. Oh, but it's not quite that complicated to us!

Quick break! The memory palace technique. It is a way of memorizing stuff not by heart, but by placing information we want to remember in a specific room in our mind where we can later retrieve it from. "Using this technique a person with ordinary memorization capabilities [...], with less than an hour of practice, can remember the sequence of a shuffled deck of cards. The world record for this is held by Simon Reinhard at 21.19 seconds" - Wikipedia.

It seems we have built-in capabilities about how to retrieve stuff from our heads. We easily discriminate data over other data and we have natural ways of remembering where that piece of data we liked was. Where it was! The rest of the data is just noise that we ignore because this is how we like it.

We are so bad at remembering random strings of characters! But this memory palace thing is exactly how our brains want to work. Most probably for the same reason, we are also world wide champions at browsing tons of web pages to find that awesome product we wanted. We know how to track, hunt and get back to the products we liked.

Now it becomes more clear that people need two things to find a product: a way to access a large variety of products and another way to get back to the products they liked. That "what we like" also means "where it was" and that's a pretty finite place somewhere in the multitude of blueprints of lots of different things we usually keep in our heads.

Infinite scroll provides us with a way to access lots of products, but it gives no means to put those products somewhere in perspective. Everything we had seen remains a blur. "Oh, it was somewhere above, around there, 20 or 40 rows before, possibly" - does this sound familiar? This vehicle has a thrust pedal, but the steering wheel is not always with us.

Infinite scroll is a great tool whenever people don't need to get back somewhere. For other things, we need to give users a way to create their breadcrumbs and their own places, be it pagination or something else that meets the same purpose.

We are geeks and we love technology. When we build interfaces, we need to connect to our users with utmost sincerity. Each one of the interfaces we build is not about us. If we miss this checkpoint, people will sense we failed them and will punish us for it. To conclude, infinite scroll is neither good, nor bad. As many things in the realm of user experience, it is both. We should offer users the opportunity to use pagination and infinite scroll and lots of other great tools when they actually need them and they will feel the world is a better place.

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