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The display of a non-interactive progress bar that reflects the amount of content that the user has read/scrolled through seems to be reflecting the trend that users want distinct visual indicators as a specific feedback to the information they are looking for, probably due to the amount of on screen interactions that they are bombarded with.

The last popular trend was to display the page or content loading progress towards the top of the page in a similar fashion to the youtube videos, and now I am noticing the display of progress indicators in long articles.

Although some people might think this is rather redundant due to the presence of a scroll indicator on the right hand side of the page that provides the user with an idea of how far down the page they have scrolled, the content progress indicator is slightly more accurate as it ignores the banners and advertisements at the top and bottom of the page. As you can see in the image below, the user is nearly finished with the article, but is not near the bottom of the page.

enter image description here

Is this a useful or necessary aid that serves to improve the user experience, or is it really the result of too much clutter and 'stuff' that isn't related to the main content being presented to the user?

By the way, this feature is usually only present on desktop views and not on mobile.

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    This always annoys me a lot. It distracts me from the article while scrolling. – stommestack Mar 2 '17 at 10:30
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    Safari on macOS hides the scrollbar by default, until you scroll or move the cursur close to it. – Jasper Mar 15 '17 at 8:20
  • @Jasper This is the vertical scrollbar for macOS that you are referring to? – Michael Lai Mar 15 '17 at 8:27
  • @MichaelLai Yes. – Jasper Mar 15 '17 at 10:08
  • Light gamification perhaps? I can't just leave an article with the bar 90% complete. :) – cloudworks Mar 20 '17 at 14:31
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+50

It think it's just an additional feature that may not be used by majority of users, because as you start reading the content; your focus remains on the content, when you scroll slowly (as anyone would do while reading content) the indicator fails to drag attention. It only becomes noticeable when you scroll up/down at considerable speed.

Its helpfulness to sighted users is quite low, and thinking about users with accessibility tools, I don't think it offers any help.

The 'X min read' feature used by Medium is helpful to both sighted users and users with disabilities:

enter image description here


Update

People want progress bars. But when?

In the famous paper “The importance of percent-done progress indicators for computer-human interfaces,” Dr. Brad Myers of University of Toronto found people prefer to have progress indicators.

It’s because, as people, we are driven to:

  • Have goals;
  • and then Accomplish goals.

We inherently feel good about achieving something. Dr. Hugo Liu from MIT and Hunch.com says in his article Need to Complete, “It turns out that when you finish a complex task, your brain releases massive quantities of endorphins.”

https://blog.kissmetrics.com/the-progress-bar/

Reading an article cannot be termed as complex task.


Why designers hate on the article progress bar

“It’s a neat feature, but it doesn’t make sense on blog posts or most digital content. Unless you use it for long-form stories, it just winds up being distracting,” said Kevin Kearney, CEO of Hard Candy Shell, adding that publishers should avoid using the feature across all of their articles. He said that Hard Candy Shell has “blacklisted” the feature and pushes back against clients who request it.

http://digiday.com/media/designers-hate-article-progress-bar/

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    fantastic point on the "x min read" as accessibility feature. – Jung Lee Mar 5 '17 at 15:02
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    I think even if not used by the majority of users, it would definitely be noticed by them because it is fixed at the top of the screen and its persistent nature when combined with the changes when you scroll would draw some focus or attention away. Whether it is to the user's benefit or not, or if there's another purpose or intention is what I am interested to find out. – Michael Lai Mar 15 '17 at 8:24
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    When I first started noticing them, I was ~bloody delighted~ by the effect, because I could have a reliable and consistent way to track where I was in a piece I was reading, especially for the reasons pointed out in other answers: dynamic content such as comment sections, ads and just having a concept of time invested/time to go. The article gives some good perspective on it (after all, I'm only representative of me), but it still just presents opinions - we can't make a call about the UX impact without the results of testing put in front of us, or done by someone answering. – The Serpent Says Mar 17 '17 at 19:43
  • Personally, the "accomplish goals" aspect resonates most with me. I might be reading an article, feel my interest waning, or I've gathered what I want to know. Knowing how far I have to go might help me "complete" the task entirely. If I'm 25% into a very long read, I'll click away. If I'm 85% done, I'll finish it. – cloudworks Mar 20 '17 at 14:27
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"Is this a useful or necessary aid that serves to improve the user experience"

On web sites with multiple articles on a single page (e.g. blog formats or lazy-loading page), window scroll bar doesn't accurately tell you how much more reading you have left for current article. So a progress indicator DOES do a better job. So I wouldn't say it's purely for embellishment.

However, it proved to be a bit of a fad because it's pretty rare to see one now. From technical implementation perspective, it's tricky to implement an accurate progress indicator. You have to consider all sorts of variables, including browser window heights, ads and ad blocks shifting content height, and short articles that only take up half a page, etc.

  • This, particularly when the website loads the next article at the bottom of the currently read one (Bloomberg, etc.), I found it's useful. – TernaryTopiary Mar 15 '17 at 4:37
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Personally I find article progress bars redundant, but they may actually have some value.

Generally, such bars are more visible: they are brighter, more contrast, and placed in a visible place. So, if I want to see my progress, I can do it immediately. I don't need to scroll the screen up-down to summon scrollbar, and then calculate height ratio subtracting header and footer (and probably ads). So, less effort to check my progress.

Do I really need to always check my progress?

People in our days have a habit to consume short, easy digestible content like tweets, instant messages with funny pictures. Serious long-reads require more effort from a user. So, a bright and easy visible progress bar may encourage some almost-bored reader to accomplish their reading task. It is like smart-watch goal indicator. "Good going! You're almost done!"

You can also add some YouTube-like navigation features to this bar, represent your text structure. But the main point, I believe, is goal achievement.

  • +1 It is good to get an answer from a different perspective, so thanks for your input. – Michael Lai Mar 15 '17 at 11:11
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the trend that users want distinct visual indicators as a specific feedback to the information they are looking for

I feel this trend too; yet, I haven't seen much articles reporting it.

Web users don't read and seem busy. They are scanning the page until they found a satisficing information. This behavior is a strategy to save time for a better investment.

The purpose of the first quick scan of an article would to be to answer the following question: is it worth a full read at all? This decision making phase really depends on the length of the article the longer it is, the more time you need to invest.

Users do not like uncertainty. Adding progress indicators helps users estimate the time they need to invest before making an informed decision. Furthermore, it favours a deeper reading as it triggers a feeling of "almost done".

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Is this a useful or necessary aid that serves to improve the user experience, or is it really the result of too much clutter and 'stuff' that isn't related to the main content being presented to the user?

Clutter. On an article, one can gauge the size of an article and their progress through it by looking at the location of the scroll bar. From a usability standpoint, progress indicators are great when the end isn't easily visible (such as in a survey where the user has to press 'next' to continue).

It's difficult to design progress bars that users can see and that also don't distract them from their task (known from work experience as a user researcher). And if all the progress bars are doing are distracting/annoying readers in these articles, and not adding value (since the scroll bar has the same effect), then I'd argue it's clutter.

  • In the example provided, the scroll bar doesn't provide a very accurate indication of the size of the article and the reader's progress due to elements not related to the article content (e.g. advertisement). I do agree that it is distracting but perhaps in many contexts of online browsing where people tend to get distracted, it might serve as a way to encourage people to get through to the end? – Michael Lai Mar 2 '17 at 23:15
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I can only give my thoughts out of personal experience.

My most frequently used app is Pocket. I always look at the scrollbar to see how far I am within the article. Or judge the length of the article by the height of the scrollbar. Thinking about it, I prefer shorter articles. I get a positive vibe from seeing a long scrollbar.

In Pocket I know I can trust the position of the scrollbar to indicate correctly where I am within the article. On the web, I know I can't do that because of comments that are likely to follow the article.

It's very possible I'm representative for any number of people.

But do these minor quirks validate the implementation of a progress indicator on an article?

The only validated reason I can think of is when user research/testing shows a fair amount of people scrolling through the entire page–before reading–to judge the length of the article. This might indicate people don't trust the browsers' scrollbar anymore.

A less validated reason I can think of is "adding user delight". By making it not that noticeable you probably won't bother most users (except perhaps @Jop V. judging by his comment), but delight those that discover it and find it useful. It sounds like a gamble and maybe it is, I can't support it with any data.

But I'm afraid for most it's just one of those things they add just because they can.

Again. These are just my thoughts about the matter and in no way, can I back this up.
The only thing I do know is that Medium shows the reading time of an article because they want

to give readers an idea of how they'd like to invest their time while reading stories on Medium.

I would love to read some actual research about this, containing actual arguments about why site X has implemented the progress bar and what the effects where in reader engagement. I would love to read about this, preferably in an article with a progress bar.

  • +1 some very well thought out ideas. I would definitely be keen to see some research too. – Michael Lai Mar 15 '17 at 8:26
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    Medium themselves have some interesting articles about their analytics but I haven't come across an article where they say how they increase user engagment (get people to read more) other than suggesting the right articles for people to read. – Paul van den Dool Mar 15 '17 at 8:32
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Is it needed, no. Could it be distracting, sure. Do people usually use the scroll bar to judge the length of an article, sure I guess so. I guess the point I'm trying to make is that a lot of these are assumptions. This is where usability testing would be a good idea. Testing also would give us some insights we might miss by making these assumptions about the user. With time and budget permitted I say test it.

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