The Disappearing Scrollbar

A plea for this humble but useful tool.
scroll bar and other web icons

An intriguing article recently published by Ars Technica explores elements of Apple’s newest operating system. One element, the “disappearing” scrollbar, is a significant change from an accepted standard. As other industry innovators adopt a disappearing scrollbar as part of their interface, what consequences does this have for the user?

While it may not be the most aesthetically pleasing part of our interactive experience, a scrollbar has long been an essential part of content consumption. One can immediately tell how much content lies ahead by the size of the shape riding in the bar. Scrollbars also tell us how far we’ve gone within the content, how far we have to go, and when we’ve reached the end. And when there is no scrollbar at all, we know that what we see is what we get.

So, if a scrollbar can tell us all these things, why are so many industry leaders eliminating it? Disappearing scrollbars first appeared on smart phones, where their absence made sense, given the small screen size. Since smart phone users have accepted this convention, it’s easy to see why Apple is adopting it in the new Lion interface: Apple loves to eliminate visual clutter and has built an entire company on a minimalist design aesthetic.

But on desktops and laptops there is plenty of space for a scroll bar, and the value it offers the user isn’t insignificant. A clean and uncluttered visual experience is a laudable goal, but not at the expense of an intuitive and useful interface tool. Making a user hunt around for a hidden navigation element doesn’t seem very user friendly to us. We hope developers will pull back from the disappearing scrollbar brink, and save this humble but useful tool.

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