Why Pinterest-style infinite-scroll layouts are worthless for everyone except Pinterest

I’ll admit, when I first saw Pinterest and its never-ending flow of gridlocked photos, I was impressed. It was a fresh approach to content delivery that overwhelms the senses and really lets you give yourself up to the beauty of photography. Unfortunately, apparently everyone else felt the same way about it.

In the months that followed, I noticed more and more sites that opted to copy the Pinterest layout. First it was Etsy, then it was every bay area startup ever (see Pinchit), and most recently, it’s been the corporate world, with Fortune 500 companies like Ebay taking it on. Frankly, I can’t believe it’s gotten this bad.

I wouldn’t call myself a UI/UX master, but the way I’m seeing things, the Pinterest layout is a giant leap backward for the field, and a total slap in the face to all the UI guys who worked so hard to bring us out of the dark days of the web. Every other major trend on the web that I can think of has been such because it made things easier to navigate. Shadows on boxes and gradients on buttons, simplified layouts, organized flow, and even infinite scroll all made it easier to find the content you’re looking for / interested in without getting caught up in the layout of the site. But the Pinterest layout doesn’t contribute to the cause. Instead, it makes it damn near impossible to find anything at all.

If there’s anything that the last couple years of web have taught us, it’s that less is definitely more. Despite this, the main thing that the Pinterest layout accomplishes is cramming as much content as possible onto a single page, which has presumably been justified by a statement like, “the more we show them, the more likely they are to find something they like.” For some reason, our first instinct is to accept that this makes perfect sense. But when has it ever made sense in practice? Almost never.

Which computer store does better, the Best Buy with 800 different available models to choose from, or the Apple store with 3? Or how about when you go to a restaurant. Which menu would you rather order off of, the one that has so many things on it that you can’t even wrap your head around what’s on it before your server is hounding you for an order, or the one with just 10 great options?

No one wants to be overwhelmed with content. True, the more someone has seen, the more likely they are to find something interesting, but that should in no way imply that the best way to deliver that content is all at once. Too much content promotes apathy. How can I possibly focus on just one thing when there are so many other things there? How can I decide to buy one product knowing there are a thousand other options I may have missed? I’d rather buy nothing at all. How about instead of trying to put every product you have in front of my face, get rid of 90% of it, and just be a little bit smarter about predicting content I actually want to see?

But that’s not the worst part. The reason I hate these layouts most of all is that in the case where I’m actually trying to find something specific, it’s impossible. The photos are staggered, and thrown on the page in a seemingly random fashion. There’s no flow to it at all. The same product could appear a hundred times on the page and I still might not even notice it. When I land on a page like this, my eye can’t figure out where to go, so it just sort of drifts from left to right to down and back to left again, seeing everything but remembering nothing. Basically, there’s so much content that there may as well not be any at all.

So why then, does it work for Pinterest?

The layout works for Pinterest purely because no one goes there looking for something particular, and because it’s not crucial to Pinterest’s success that the user see any one photo. Pinterest is an art site. If something catches the user’s eye, that’s great! It means the art stands out, which is probably a testament to the artist. But even if it doesn’t, it still contributes to the ambiance of the page, which is more than enough. I can look at the page as a whole, with its bright coors and beautiful aesthetics, and get just as much value out of it as I might have out of a single photo. It doesn’t matter to me, and it doesn’t matter to Pinterest. We’re happy either way. But as soon as you attempt to use that layout to sell a product or promote some kind of interaction, and when that interaction forms the core of a company’s business model, it immediately becomes a terrible choice.

I’ve heard appreciation for this sentiment from designers and engineers alike, which has brought to wonder… with all the resources they have available to them, who the heck are these companies finding to do their UI design?

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31 comments

  1. This is so money. I agree wholeheartedly.

  2. Completely agree Stephen. Pinterest’s layout IS Pinterest’s product, but when you take that concept and try applying it to something completely unrelated, the idea falls apart. Sometimes when a new digital product comes out and becomes the rage everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon by replicating the unique feature of that cool new site or app. Instead, companies should focus on ways of optimizing their product in their own way that works for their product.

  3. Interesting point, but what about apparels sites. For sites like these, users don’t really know what they want. So a pinterest kind of layout works where you can chance upon things you like.
    I think it works for cases where intent is not very clear and is very subjective.

  4. I agree there are too many copy-cat UI designs that merely follow the trend, but I disagree with your conclusion.

    I personally don’t like Pinterest or its UI – I dislike infinite scroll where the choice is removed from the user, or sites where it’s a struggle to reach the footer (i.e. Mashable), but a card-based layout of posts can be perfectly readable provided the number of columns are kept to a minimum.

    Pinterest wasn’t the first to experiment with this type of design – our site earned an award for something similar in 2008 – and continues with a card-based layout. Our objective for the design is to enable visitors of the site to see a couple of days posts at one glance, rather than being forced to browse through several pages before doing so.

    While I realise your title is deliberately designed to prompt a reaction, I don’t accept that Pinterest owns ‘the style’ and also suggest Infinite Scroll merits further qualification – auto loading = bad UX (in most cases), but user-initiated scrolling is not.

    At the end of the day, if form follows function then I don’t see a problem, but if a design is transplanted onto a site just because it is popular elsewhere then that’s just plain stupid.

  5. The application of the Pinterest model to those sites is not a mistake. It’s a deliberate choice. It is the digital equivalent of the Gruen transfer- the deliberate disorientation of the visitor to a supermarket to encourage them to revert to impulse buying practices. The real question is whether is works… and for that we will have to wait and see

  6. And yet it works wonderfully for Pintrest, keeping my fiance in a fugue state looking at ways to use peanut butter all afternoon.

    Totally agree with the assessment.

  7. It’s like you read my mind. Everytime I see this on a site, including site with little to no visual content, I get really annoyed and go do something else.

  8. That’s the problem with most copy cats without even realizing if what their copying even fits the real purpose of their website. Well you can always give it a try at http://www.meestuf.com where sharing is more fun.

  9. Boy, this is like Jakob Nielsen trying to force the same few rules on all the sites of the world.

    If you want to communicate a mass of products, a world of emotions, whatever – you are setting yourself up for failure if you want to predict and suggest that one single product that will please the user. You’ll never get it right, and you’ll miss out on all the stuff you didn’t know about your user.

    The one point you are making that I agree on is that copying UI/behaviour from one site to another without questioning it, is generally a bad idea. But comparing Best Buy with Apple Stores, calling out infinite scroll as the mother of all bad in website design.. seriously?

    But hey. Discussions are rolling. Something is working here.

  10. How about this classifieds website, HouseOfNothing? This website predated Pinterest. So it is not a copy-cat. It uses five column image thumbnails display, and it keeps them on the same level so the visitors do not get disoriented when they land on the site. The front page limits the display to 10 rows. It does not automatically extend itself to create an infitite flow of images.. Would it fix some of the problems you mention in the article?

  11. As much as I’d like to agree with you, more is more for a lot of people. Just look at what “performs”. Huffington Post, Fab, eBay and every major newspaper. They’re all bursting with huge loads of crap and the result is that they perform, very well indeed.

    If you have the opportunity to work in a company like any of those you’d know the mantra of the marketing guys… more more more more. And what can I say? it seems to works with the masses!

  12. Totally agree. Fact – Infinite scrolling feature failed at Etsy, it had a negative impact on engagement.

  13. I mostly agree; the infinite scroll is certainly an over-used eye-candyesque feature that has not practical UX purpose in many of the places it is used. However, I think there are certainly more examples of sites that could benefit from letting users ‘browse’ vs. trying to predict what they want than the tone of the article gives credence to. Plus, even in some cases where from a true UX perspective the infinite scroll doesn’t necessarily aid a user from a content perspective, there may be value in making use of a trendy or eye-catching presentation purely for the sake of staying relevant. Not the best justification, but it can ‘sometimes’ have merit. Just my two cents.

  14. Spot on.

    As a power shopper, I hate infinite scroll on consumer sites because:

    1. I’m someone who goes through the first xx number of pages, opens up items I want to possibly buy, then narrows down and purchased. Infinite scroll is exhausting when I can’t figure out where the hell the end is.

    2. DOES NOT WORK ON MOBILE. (as of iOS on 2/25). When on Safari, your place in this giant list of items is not preserved when you click to see an item and it opens in the current window. BOOOO!!!! To have that simple page anchor preserved, you must use an App (if available).

    3. I find these catalog lists are developed primarily with the infinite scroll feature tested and launched, but rarely with the useful UX multi-faceted filters I so desire when browsing to buy. Quality of results, not quantity. I want to find my damn red high heel shoes instead of scrolling furiously past thrown-in results of boots, sandals, or loafers.

    ####
    CONCLUSION:
    Browsing ≠ a need for the Pinterest board UI

    And ecommerce “users don’t really know what they want” is a misconception that throws the baby out with the water. Let’s not forget power users, return users, or users that DO know what they want…you know, the types of customers that bring in the majority of revenue.

    I think the grid v. list view is a better alternative to showing more content on a catalog list in a smaller amount of space than the staggered and infinite pinboard look.

  15. Oh, finally i’ve found someone who is as well not fond of it)) I mean it is cool for Pinterest and maybe some other proper-context services.. but when a social network aggregator does this.. (how can i possible understand, where’s the latest update there?).
    mostly i do not even like the “load more” feature. Pagination means at least some kind of urls, even constantly updated, but there are some hints as where to find content. i understand that’s ok for twitter (there’s no way you can find there anything at all)))), but for more serious content services this is just.. bad.

  16. It all comes down to the fundamental principle that separates design from art: purpose.

    Art does not solve a problem necessarily, whereas design is all about problem solving (I’m going somewhere with this). So design, especially UX design, must serve the purposes of the product being designed.

    In Pinterest’s case, what is the purpose? To keep people on the site (and clicking) as long as possible, i.e.: “engagement.” They are participants in the attention economy, and their business model depends on it.

    E-commerce sites, on the other hand, rely on purchases. Engagement doesn’t really matter if nobody is buying anything, and it is in their best interests to present what the potential buyer wants (including people who are just browsing) as quickly as possible.

    So I agree with the sentiment, but not the “Pinterest is an art site” part. Pinterest is a business, and their UX design serves their purposes entirely. They thrive on, essentially, addiction to the service (as it looks good to advertisers and Silicon Valley seed funds). The design purposefully supports that.

  17. Good Points.

    Pinterest style works for visual discovery, not for search. In eCommerce you need both, so you are correct a straight pinterest style layout is the wrong approach.

    It’s entirely dependent on the experience you are trying to provide users.

  18. [...] Why Pinterest-style infinite-scroll layouts are worthless for everyone except Pinterest – I’ve heard appreciation for this sentiment from designers and engineers alike, which has brought to wonder… with all the resources they have available to them, who the heck are these companies finding to do their UI design? [...]

  19. Ariel Jakobovits

    Nice article.

    I agree wholeheartedly: less is definitely more.
    In fact, I take it further and argue that pursuing less is the essence of plain design.

    All in all, to the naysayers, all I hear Stephen saying is that adding infinite scroll Pinterest-style does not fit all circumstances. Maybe we could benefit from a list of questions to ask one’s self before adding infinite scrolling to their site.

    I submit:
    1. Does your average user perform a task on your site, unlike an activity like browsing?
    2. Does your average user look to your site’s design for guidance in completing their task?
    3. How will you design your infinite scrolling so as to provide your users with task guidance?

  20. Nice post, Stephen. I agree that a solution that works for one doesn’t necessarily work for all, no matter how trendy or imaginative said solution may be.

  21. Amen!

    You’ve perfectly expressed what I think every time I land on a Pinterest-esque site.

  22. Ricardo de Cillo

    You should talk to Etsy product manager and ask why. I believe they had made some A/B tests to sustain their decision od using it. Their sellers take pictures with different aspect ratios and cropping the pictures isnt a nice approach. Fixing product item width and height without cropping the image produces irregular white spaces all over the page. So its easy to blame, not that easy to make better.

  23. This is total shit, you’re just old

  24. I would much rather have a restaurant with lots of choices than 10 items I may or may not like. I would also rather shop at Best Buy which has better prices and the choice of Apple & Windows PCs over the Apple store which gives me no choice. Choice is great.

  25. To sum up the article and all of the comments: UI layout and functionality is circumstantial and task-based, depending on type of content and the process flow behind the page.

    I really like the restaurant and BB v Apple analogies – but obviously not everyone does, thus reinforcing the adage “different strokes for different folks”.

    While it would be complex in development and design approach, i think it would be an interesting exercise to start the experience with a choice when creating an account – are you a browser or a searcher? – and then have a layout for each type of user. browsers (judging by this thread) may really like the pinterest layout, regardless of content type. or maybe even a toggle at the top to swap views – then, collect multiple analytics and cross-reference them to determine user motives and preferences in conjunction with the layout type.

  26. I completely agree. When I first used Pinterest, I enjoyed the infinite scrolling – it kept me engaged with their interactive content which I think enhanced my over experience with their website. But when sites like Mashable and Digg started using the Pinterest style pages, I kind of got tired of it and would just think about how they bit off Pinterest. The same goes for their mobile apps. If you’re interested in creating a website or mobile site that is unique with great UX, check out http://www.seamgen.com/mobile-software-development/.

  27. I don’t think the problem is designers trying to copy a trend. I think the problem is management trying t copy a trend, rather than letting designers do their jobs. This is a pretty common occurrence; I’m sure most of the people actually coding these things know it’s bad, but don’t have the authority to decide to do something better.

  28. Thank you for this insight. I’m glad I read this before I put my store together. I was actually thinking of using a pinterest like layout.

  29. This is speculation, unless you have the data to back it up.

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