Scrolling or paging?

The new version of iBooks allows you to read books in a continuous scroll instead of page by page. This has, surprisingly, set off an argument on which is the better way to read an ebook.

As best I can tell, the debate started with Dmitri Fadeyev’s post in favor of scrolling. This was followed by Rian van der Merwe’s argument that paging is better, a position echoed by Michael Tsai and Lukas Mathis.

I don’t get it. Paging is clearly an artifact of the technology of paper books, a technology I love deeply, but one that doesn’t make a lot of sense in an ebook reader. The arguments in favor of paging seem to boil down to these:

  1. Paging has an easier user interface. Tap here to go forward, tap there to go backward. None of this flicking or dragging fussiness that you get with scrolling. Scrolling is just too much work.
  2. Paging gives you a sense of accomplishment. Every time you tap to move forward, there’s a sort of metaphorical dusting off of the hands: I’ve finished that page and I’m moving on. Scrolling is just continuous drudgery.

These are poor arguments. First, scrolling interfaces are not precluded from having the ability to jump a half or a full screenful at a time. This sort of jumping is, in fact, nearly universal in web browsers and text editors. If iBooks doesn’t have it, that isn’t the fault of scrolling per se, it’s the fault of iBooks.

Also, is it really that much effort to scroll? Michael Tsai calls it exhausting, which I find flatly unbelievable. I read shitloads of stuff on scrolling web pages—as I’m sure Michael does—and I don’t get exhausted doing it.

As for the sense of accomplishment, I am, if anything, even more dubious. Flipping a page, whether in a physical book or an ebook, has never charged me with a feeling of achievement. In fact, in paged ebooks I seldom have any sense of how far along I am—in physical books there is, at least, the thickness of what’s in your left hand compared to what’s in your right.

I will say, though, that Dimitri’s initial post didn’t make the best case for scrolling. He made an improvement in his second post on the topic, where he discusses reading a set of instructions:

[T]he scroll interface did not insert artificial breaks in the content. When you’re looking at code or a list of instructions, you really don’t want them broken up by an artificial page, forcing you to go back and forth to verify that everything you’ve typed is correct.

While this is a good example, it’s still too restrictive. It’s not just technical manuals that benefit. Any book above the level of pure fluff can be be better read in a scrolling interface, because a scrolling interface gives you the opportunity to keep difficult passages together on the screen. In a paged interface, you’re at the mercy of the pagination algorithm and often need to flip back and forth. Authors don’t write in pages, they write in sentences and paragraphs, neither of which are honored in a paged interface.

And as the screen size gets smaller—let’s say you’re reading on an iPhone instead of an iPad—you’re more likely to find passages split up that ought to be together. The fewer words there are on the screen, the better it is to be able to scroll.

Honestly, I don’t see this as a close call.

30 Responses to “Scrolling or paging?”

  1. Carl says:

    When you read a long webpage on your Mac, do you hit space bar, page down, arrow keys, scroll wheel/track pad, or, god forbid, click the scroll arrows in pre-Lion scroll gutters? I’m a space bar man, all the way.

    The advantage of a book like interface on a touch device is that it gives you a screen’s worth of new content in exchange for just on tap or gesture. That’s much less work, just like the space bar.

  2. Allen MacKenzie says:

    What’s interesting, though, is that apparently a lot of work on digital textbooks indicates that students retain more if things are organized into pages rather than presented in one long scroll. Now, I think that was comparing a long scroll (of, say, a textbook chapter) to one that was logically organized onto pages (with, say, a short section, which might have been 2-3 pages in the printed book) and not comparing to a book that was paginated by an algorithm.

    Giant flashing disclaimer: This is not my area, and I couldn’t really point you to the studies. It’s just a fun fact that I picked up in some kind of teaching seminar. But I’ve seen it a couple other places, so I don’t think it’s totally fabricated.

  3. Carl says:

    To Allen’s point, I know I often have the experience of thinking, “Hmm, I know that the fact I need was on the lower left side of one of these pages…” then I flip through the book and find it. I don’t think this would work with eBooks though, because there the pagination tends to change at random.

  4. Tobias says:

    Instapaper defaults to scrolling, and for years the paging used to be rather buggy, but I use it exclusively.

    With scrolling I barely read half a screen before moving the view because I’m afraid to lose my place when things jump around. I’m probably conditioned by bad scrolling on the Mac, where spacebar or page down often skip a line, or the overlap isn’t consistent.

    Whatever the reason, paging is a much more relaxed experience.

  5. ChrisLTD says:

    My personal experience is that scrolling text is more fatiguing to read. Your eyes and brain have to constantly keep track of the line you’re reading as you scroll the page. With pages, you have a fixed sense of where you are on the page.

  6. Dr. Drang says:

    Layout and organization are so important in textbooks, whether electronic or paper, that I wonder how a study with proper controls could be devised. I also suspect that even young people are still so habituated to paged text that there’s a bias in that direction.

    Or I could just be all wet, and paged text really is superior.

    I also remember things by location that way, including roughly how far into the book they are. Sometimes I remember which book has the info I want because I have a strong sense of the color of the book. All of those clues are lost with electronic books, but rapid keyword searching more than makes up for it.

  7. Brian says:

    When I read on a touch device I always keep the text I’m reading on the highest line or two. I think that paging and reading from the top to bottom of a screen the size of an ipad just a foot or two from your face is really annoying, especially if you are laying down. I’d prefer to move my finger instead of my head, which I have to because I wear glasses.

  8. Sean says:

    When we talk about paging I don’t think this should apply to school texts. Often (particularly in literature) the “accidental indexing” that page numbers give allow a class to get to a particular page to talk about something that needs clarification, e.g. “But what about when the author says xxx in the middle of page 32”….

    But leave that aside for the moment. That can be handled in other ways, such as Stephanus numbers (especially useful when a work is to be considered in multiple languages), or in the future the ability to flag across devices immediately. In either case not part of what I think is the actual problem discussed.

    Another issue unrelated to the question is that some books are written to have particular page breaks. I imagine comic books are written this way, and I know some authors intentionally use widows/orphans to add to the paragraph structure. Again, I think these issues are only “problems” when someone rejects a solution for 95% of problems looking for a 100% solution.

    The question I have is why the space bar/page key method of moving from one section to another is not considered “paging.” Is paging simply the consideration of a graphical marker that makes a page appear to be a page? Pressing space (or relevant hardware interface) gives the single-screen top-to-bottom reading and then flows to the next ‘page’. I wouldn’t call this ‘scrolling’. Maybe ‘page’ isn’t appropriate, so this method of e-reading might need a new term.

  9. Alex Satrapa says:

    I’d like scrolling much more if it would dispense with the useless animation of text flying past my face, and if widow/orphan control was handled properly.

    Things that I don’t like about scrolling: when I have to drag the text up or down to read following or preceding paragraphs, when “a page” is actually “9/10ths of a page” meaning that the last sentence I read on the previous page is repeated at the top of the current page, and the pointless, useless, timewasting animation of scrolling text: I can’t possibly read it that fast, so why bother displaying it?

    The reason I’m changing pages is because I have read half that sentence. I want to read the remainder of the sentence before I’ve forgotten the part that I’ve read. Those words are in my mental stack. I don’t want that disrupted by scrolling animations, or repeats of sentences that I’ve already read.

    The ideal for me would be a hybrid system where I could “page” back and forth by complete pages (i.e.: no repeated content), but then drag the page up and down to get an interesting block of text (and perhaps an accompanying diagram) on to the screen together. That could be a block of source code, or a diagram with the explanatory paragraphs.

    Authors write in paragraphs, which are groups of sentences which contain words that are intended to be read in a particular order. Most scrolling interfaces end up forcing me to re-read words that I’ve already read before I get to the words that I haven’t read. This makes scrolling the absolute worst interface for reading stuff.

    At least with the paged interfaces you’ll only have to cope with

    a sentence being broken over pages. That’s easier to cope with

    to cope with than parts of sentences being repeated when you press the space bar

    you press the space bar to read the next “page” of the scroll.

  10. Carl says:


    My ideal system for iPad held horizontally would be to have the text in two columns, left and right. You read down the left column, then move your eyes over to the right. At that point, you might move your eyes back to the left column again to make sure you didn’t forget the first half of the sentence or whatever. Then once you’re done with the left column you touch the screen and things scroll over by one column’s worth, so that what was the right column is now on the left and there’s a new column on the right. I think this would be the best system of scrolling because it combines speed of interaction (just touch once, no fiddling or sliding up and down) with the ability to “peek” at the text now past.

  11. schlingel says:

    The “poor” reasons are perfectly valid.

    It’s about the accomplishment of getting a site done. By the way it’s easier to tell others how far you got in the book.

    “Have you read Atlas Shrugged?” “Nah, got bored after 253 pages.”

    BUT: that’s very subjective. The nice thing is with such private devices, everybody has the chance to configure it the way they like it. It seems to me, that you are kind of annoyed that not everybody is your opinion.

    That’s a poor reason to start a rant to begin with.

    I like my pages, even on my eReader.

  12. Tom says:

    I always read websites with a scrollwheel mouse. I have some slightly strange eye problems that may influence it, but I find it a lot of work to refocus on the top of a page if I’m reading a page at a time. It’s a lot easier for me to keep my eyes in about the same place and scroll the text past it.

    I find Digital Editions on a PC really annoying because of this - it doesn’t have the option of a continuous scroll.

    I don’t get why ebook readers force you to use either. What’s wrong with making both available, just like every other piece of software ever written? Keyboards have cursor keys and page up/down keys for this reason. Even on devices with very limited input mechanisms (kindle etc) what’s wrong with an option to switch between scrolling and paging? Let the user decide what they like best.

  13. JG says:

    Before books, there were scrolls. Books won because of convenience, not pagination.

  14. Keith says:

    In Calibre there are paging buttons and a scrollbar, so I have the option of either one. When I’m reading fiction I prefer paging because there is less and less frequent interaction with the device, hence less to take me out of the story. When I’m reading to learn something I prefer scrolling because I can position text to have more to read while being sure to keep a section I might want to reread on the page if the new stuff provides a new context for the old.

  15. PHenry says:

    Uh oh, this is kind of like the “Spaces vs Tabs” discussion/debate/war for developers! You opened up a new can of worms, good luck! :)

  16. Visitor says:

    +1 scrolling

  17. Joop Eggen says:

    In fact subjective meanings should be replaced by a professional psychological study. With different kind of reading materials, for different goals (relaxed fiction reading, learning). Better to measure, as that seams possible here. Though thanks to everyone for all clues to aspects involved.

  18. M. says:

    Responding to this quote:

    “Authors don’t write in pages, they write in sentences and paragraphs, neither of which are honored in a paged interface.”

    This isn’t actually true. If you study the history of the written word and the book, you’ll find lots of authors write specifically to the page for a reason, Richardson’s Clarissa comes to mind with the specificity of page breaks, insertion of typographical embellishments, and the like. Early 18th century novels (see “Journal of the Plague Year”) there were no breaks at all, just running text which the readers found difficult for various reasons. So the chapter was inserted. Typography, layout, the page and its margins all have a place for various reasons that have evolved over time. Currently, the whole idea of scrolling is a relic from our dependence on the mouse. It’s not a good system, it just is.

  19. iamweaver says:

    Pagination is a simple, binary operation. It doesn’t require fine motor control, and you aren’t spending time refocusing your eyes on some random spot on the page (random because your “scroll” just moved the page some unspecified distance).

    On the other hand, fixed-distance scrolling should be just fine.

  20. Yannbane says:

    Surprisingly set off an argument? What was surprising about it?

  21. Derek Hauffe says:

    Paging is preferable to me (instantaneous, not animated). It has to do with predictability of eye targeting: I know that as soon as I page ahead, the next word will be at the top left position on the screen. There’s no wait for for the drag animation to come to an end. I don’t have to try to scroll by exactly the right amount. One tap, and with complete confidence I know where to find the next word.

  22. Peter Sloetjes says:

    Many of the above-mentioned suggestions are provided as options in Column Reader, an extension for comfortable reading of web content in Firefox. As its author, I aim to provide users with a choice when it comes to the way in which they consume content. On wide screens, I prefer three columns with column-wise, horizontal, animated scrolling (in an inverted color scheme :).

  23. Ty the Web Guy says:

    Why can’t we have both? These are computers—can’t they let us choose the method we prefer?

    As for me, personally, I prefer paging for longer pieces for a variety of reasons already mentioned by others: I tend to remember things based on where they’re located on the page/screen; paging is easier to do at the end of the day, when my fingers/hand/arm are fatigued; accessibility is better when I’m distracted. For example, it’s much easier to page while driving than to scroll. (I never do that, though.)

    And lets not forget those who are unable to efficiently or effectively scroll. People with diseases like Parkinson’s, and disabled users who can tap, but not easily slide a finger on a screen.

    There’s a third interface I prefer—made popular by Flipboard—where you flip pages vertically. It’s a hybrid of paging and scrolling. It may be the novelty that I currently enjoy, but it seems to offer some of the advantages of scrolling and paging.

  24. Marcus says:

    Give me the options. Let the author choose a preference if the text makes better sence one way or the other. I would probably switch back and forth depending on the text, the device and frankly my mood. Not worthy of argument does there have to be a ‘Best’ way? or could there be several equally good ways to read a book. personnaly I like to read in bed have my book mounted on the ceiling and use a clapper to turn pages.

  25. Gregory Nicholas says:

    has anyone mentioned that scrolling suffers from state management?

    i think that has been the biggest lack of implementation among readers.

    with pages navigation, you’re secure not to loose your spot. with most scrolling implementations, you’re fucked if you even just switch the app from a notification.

  26. Tushar says:

    For me scrolling or pagination, way of reading a content is largely dependent on what I am reading.

    I am programmer, but also like reading technical articles which are more like long stories.

    So when reading a long code I prefer it have a continues scrolling view and while reading articles a pagination view is better.

  27. Emil says:

    To me its rather simple.

    If the text is designed for pagination it should be paginated.

    Examples: Magazines, comic books, children books or offline newspapers. (Only if they are well made.)

    If the author wrote a continuing mass off text it should be scrolled.

    Examples: Everything else.

  28. Robert Wall says:

    I find it fascinating that scrolling is considered an artifact of using the mouse when the word “scrolling” itself contains the root word “scroll” - a non-paginated tech that pre-dates the mouse by thousands of years.

    Oddly enough, reading a long scroll involved rolling one side as you unrolled the other….a physical implementation of what happens digitally when you use the scroll wheel.

    I agree that artistic license can exist in either form, and if the author has put that level of effort into a document it will be better in their chosen format.

    Beyond that though, I think that (as many above have hinted) a best-practices-based hybrid solution of some sort will wind up being devised as we move forward.

  29. Alan says:

    When we built our App, ‘Readable’, we included both ‘tap to paginate’ and ‘auto-scroll’ options. We were careful to ensure pagination moved the “in view page” 90% along so customers would not lose a line of text or get disorientated. With scrolling we decided to add auto-scroll with the option of using a face detection feature in addition. The App reading view still responds to a manual swipe in either direction, as an override. We felt we needed to add these fine grain controls to improve on the standard reading features, particularly because Readable opens any URL, feed, Delicious or Pocket list, creating a wide variety of content patterns to consider. Our imminent update to version 2 adds Pinboard and Instapaper to the sources options so this is likely to get even more challenging. We are considering adding in the “flick to move one page” gesture to augment the pagination buttons. How you read is only part of the question facing touchscreen readers though. How you share content is crucial too. Which is why we introduced “scroll to position” when sharing between Readable users. The App offers the recipient the option of auto-scrolling to the position in the text the sender is viewing at the moment of sharing. We’ve had good feedback that this is a popular feature, especially to highlight a paragraph in a long article to a friend or colleague. Ultimately we felt offering readers both choices was the only option - but with some additional user preferences.

  30. Thomas says:

    I used to be an advocate for scrolling. (And that is without a doubt how I prefer to read on the web.) What I have discovered though is that the longer the text, the more I prefer my eyes to be the only thing moving. When scrolling I have to follow the text with my eyes and find the new start position. This is less of a problem if I can move the text up one screen by pushing a button. The problem is however that in most implementations (and here I think primarily of web browsers) I find that I still must do some calibration to find the place where I left off as web browsers tend to display the last couple of lines that was visible at the end of the page again at the top of the page after pressing the one screen scrolling button. If the one screen scrolling was implemented as page turning, that is, if there was no overlap between the views, this would in my mind be the best of both worlds: Vertical page turning (which—ignoring unnecessary visual effects—from a user perspective would be identical to horizontal page turning) that also allow scrolling when the reader wants it. The text is on a computer after all. Let us both have the cake and eat it!