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?