SURL did some research back in 2003 on this, in an article called "The Impact of Paging vs. Scrolling on Reading Online Text Passages"
The findings from this study show that participants using the paging condition took significantly longer to read the passages than either the full or scrolling conditions. Participants also showed no significant differences in their ability to answer comprehension questions correctly, nor in their perceptions or satisfaction of the reading conditions.
However, several users commented that they were more accustomed to scrolling when reading documents on the web. It may be that since participants had more exposure to scrolling they were able to read through the documents more quickly using that mode of navigation. Participants stated that they found the Paging condition to be "too broken up," and that they had to "go back and forth" quite a bit to search for information. It is possible then, that for searching as well, viewing more of the document on a single screen facilitated easier scanning.
SURL also did a study on pagination or scrolling for presenting search results, back in 2002:
What this suggests to us is that participants favored and performed best on layouts with both reduced paging and scrolling. However, when forced to pick between the two, they clearly preferred paging, even though participants using the ten-link condition took the most time to find the correct information.
This now brings us onto infinite/endless scrolling. There doesn't seem to be definitive research that gives guidance on this right now (if anyone knows of anything, or plans to conduct any research, I would be very interested in this).
One interesting Case Study is what Etsy did. The key points I took from that case study were:
- Fewer result items clicked or “favourited”;
- while users didn’t buy fewer items overall, “they just stopped using search to find these items.”
- Engagement did not change with faster or slower results;
The fact search was used left does seem a tad worrying. In hindsight, their thoughts were
To not test infinite scroll, but to test the assumptions that you believe infinite scroll would solve (their case being more results per page, faster results);
At the time of writing this, here is what search engines are doing:
- Google web is paginating
- Google images is infinite scrolling (with an eventual show more button)
- Bing web (desktop) is paginating
- Bing images is endless scrolling
- Bing web (mobile) is infinite scrolling
- Duckduckgo is infinite scrolling
I personally would eer on the side of caution, based on where it is being used right now, and the case study, until either I or a third party could do extensive research on it. It does seem to lend well to the news feed context, like Google Plus, Facebook, Twitter.
It also seems to lend well to browsing a big set of images. Looking at pictures is perhaps less taxing, and quicker to scan to form an opinion on each item?
What pagination does give you over endless scrolling is a reference as to where you are; "I got up to page 4".
Pagination is a necessary evil when you have too many items to easily
show them all on one screen. Linear content flows—such as articles
like this—should almost never be broken up into multiple screens. It’s
better to show the full article on one long screen than to inflict the
pain of additional steps on users when all they want to do is read an
article, and thus stay within that one item.
Where pagination comes in handy is for listings, such as e-commerce
category pages, search engine results pages (SERP), article archives,
and photo galleries. Here, a user’s goal is not to peruse the full
list, but rather to find a specific item and click through to that
Assuming that you can prioritize the list items, users are likely to
find what they want close to the top. To focus users’ attention and
improve response time, you can start by showing a fairly short list,
and then offer pagination options for progressing further down the
list if needed.