Real live scrolling

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Technology
April 3rd, 2003 • 5:58 pm

A long outstanding issue with web browsing and, more general, with browsing documents that are bigger than the window in which they are being displayed, be it in web browsers, word processors, etc. is what happens when you use commands such as “Page Up” or “Page Down” or the space bar in web browsing. Such commands cause the program to scroll up or down the document in bigger leaps. The problem is that the exact scope of these leaps is pretty much unpredictable, which forces the eyes of the reader to constantly readjust their position by trying to find where exactly they were in their reading.

For example, in most web browsers, pressing the space bar causes the window to scroll down by a distance that is approximately the height of the visible part of the document, i.e. the “screen” height — but when you reach the end of the document, if the last section of that document happens to be shorter than the full height of the screen, then pressing the space bar does not go as far as it did previously. So it’s impossible for the user to get an intuitive sense of how far pressing the space bar actually causes the document to scroll, because it’s not always the same. (What’s worse is that after that final “Page Down” that only went down by half a screen, pressing the “Page Up” key to go back one step does not go back to the previous screen, because in that direction it can jump by one full screen again.)

To make a long (and difficult to explain) story short, the bottom line is that, all too often, when scrolling up and down a document, the reader gets lost because the text doesn’t get displayed exactly in the way that it expected it to be, and he has to scan up and down the screen to relocate the position in the text that his eyes were locked on right before he pressed the Page Up or Page Down key. It happens to me all the time.

This morning, a thought occurred to me: Now that we have ultra powerful computers with ultra powerful graphics, why not make the scrolling more realistic by actually making the text slide up or down very rapidly when the Page Up or Page Down key is pressed? This way, the user could actually see the document scroll and he could keep his eyes locked on the position in the document where he was, because this position would literally move across the screen in very rapid motion.

Right now, there is absolutely no visual transition. What we get when we press the Page Up or Page Down keys or their equivalents is a “Before and After” sequence, where the computer instantly refreshes the entire contents of the document window without giving the user a sense of the direction in which the document in scrolling or of the distance covered. Instead of this “Before and After” sequence, I suggest a more gradual transition. It would still be almost instantaneous, but it would also give a sense of where the document is going, in very rapid motion.

The same thing would apply to drag and drop operations and any other operation involving movement. I don’t think it would be a waste of CPU cycles to have a more realistic representation of the way things are being moved around on the screen. It would definitely be easier on the eyes.

(I seem to remember that Microsoft Word did start using some kind of visual animation for certain operations in recent versions of their programs. However, my “Provide feedback with animation” option is checked in my Preferences in Word X, and I still don’t see anything of the kind happening right now. Maybe it was something that was there is Word 2001 and is no longer there in Word X. I can’t remember.)

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