I'm trying out smooth scrolling in my browsers

October 7, 2017

When I started out using web browsers, there was no such thing as browser smooth scrolling; graphics performance was sufficiently poor that the idea would have been absurd. When you tapped the spacebar, the browser page jumped, and that was that. When graphics sped up and browsers started taking advantage of it, not only was I very used to my jump scrolling but I was running on Linux (and on old hardware), so the smooth scrolling I got did not exactly feel very nice to me. The upshot was that I immediately turned it off in Firefox, and ever since then I've carried that forward (and explicitly turned it off in Chrome as well, and so on).

I've recently reversed that, switching over to letting my browsers use smooth scrolling. Although my reversal here was sudden, it's the culmination of a number of things. The first is that I made some font setup changes that produced a cascade of appearance changes in my browsers, so I was fiddling with my browser setup anyway. The font change itself was part of reconsidering long term habits that maybe weren't actually the right choice, and on top of that I read Pavel Fatin's Scrolling with pleasure, especially this bit:

What is smooth scrolling good for — isn’t it just “bells and whistles”? Nothing of the kind! Human visual system is adapted to deal with real-world objects, which are moving continuously. Abrupt image transitions place a burden on the visual system, and increase user’s cognitive load (because it takes additional time and effort to consciously match the before and after pictures).

A number of studies have demonstrated measurable benefits from smooth scrolling, [...]

On the one hand, I didn't feel like I had additional cognitive load because of my jump scrolling; if anything, it felt like jump scroll was easier than smooth scroll. On the other hand, people (myself included) are just terrible at introspection; my feelings could be completely wrong (and probably were), especially since I was so acclimatized to jump scrolling and smooth scrolling was new and strange.

Finally, in practice I've been doing 'tap the spacebar' whole page scrolling less and less for some time. Increasingly I scroll only a little bit at a time anyway, using a scroll wheel or a gesture. That made the change to smooth scrolling less important and also suggested to me that maybe there was something to the idea of a more continuous, less jumpy scroll, since I seemed to prefer something like it.

At this point I've been using browser smooth scrolling for more than a month. I'm not sure if it's a huge change, and it certainly doesn't feel as big of a change as my new fonts. In some quick experiments, it's clear that web pages scroll slower with smooth scrolling turned on, but at the same time that's also clearly deliberate; jump scroll is basically instant, while smooth scrolling has to use some time to actually be smooth. Switching to jump scrolling for the test felt disorienting and made it hard to keep track of where things were on the page, so at the least I've become used to how to work with smooth scrolling and I've fallen out of practice with jump scrolling on web pages.

On the whole I don't regret the change so far and I can even believe that it's quietly good for me. I expect that I'll stick with it.

(I admit that one reason I was willing to make the switch was my expectation that sooner or later both Firefox and Chrome were just going to take away the option of jump scrolling. Even if I wind up in the same place in the end, I'd rather jump early than be pushed late.)

Written on 07 October 2017.
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Last modified: Sat Oct 7 01:05:44 2017
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