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There is a term used for describing a behavioral pattern where users feel disoriented or anxious when a navigable space is unbounded and there is no reference point.

For example, in a 3D drawing program if there is no axis reference point (aka origin) and no sheet size, users feel like the space is endless.

Another example is Amazon's old Windowshop app where users could scroll an infinite sheet of amazon products in X- and Y- dimensions and users didn't like being lost inside the sheet.

The following excerpt from a web design book describes the behavior as it applies to web browsing:

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What is the term given to this behavior?

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    Fear, Anxiety and disorientation that's a tall order! For me Spatial disorientation is the first thing that comes to mind and is ver much anchored in the physical world...aircraft pilots! How would the term help you ? – Okavango Mar 12 '15 at 5:16
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    @Okavango lol too true! Spatial disorientation is definitely a similar term, but I recall a more design-oriented term I saw in a few textbooks. I've been thinking about grid-breaking layouts (including VR) recently and one of the issues with responsive design is the amount of white space they tend to consume, so I've needed some vocabulary to help describe behavioral reactions to that open space in grid-breaking layouts. Until I find a better term, 'spatial disorientation' is what I'll use! – tohster Mar 12 '15 at 5:29
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    I think spatial disorientation is a good term: you can get this problem in computer games as well, which is why they often have a mini-map to aid orientation. – PhillipW Mar 12 '15 at 9:19
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Thought I will give it a go :)

Spatial disorientation (temporary term) happens when user has no reference point in-sight to orient their next move.

This seems to be a known issue with infinite scrolling, as well as in the navigation of virtual spaces. In both situations the user could lack sufficient insight to guide their decision making process and hence their next move or the continuation of an on-going action which results in uncertainty and disorientation. In virtual environments this could be countered by:

Increasing the user’s awareness about the surrounding 3D space that is outside the current viewport. This space is called “virtual off-screen space”.

source: Evaluating guidelines for reducing user disorientation when navigating in virtual environments (PDF)

I think the same principal applies for scrolling and site navigation: To deal with this, Design will have to provide sufficient clues as to what lies beyond what is immediately available for the user to see. The concept of information scent and the theory of information foraging could prove useful:

Information scent refers to the extent to which users can predict what they will find if they pursue a certain path through a website. The term is part of information foraging theory, which explains how users interact with systems using the analogy of animals hunting for food.

Source: Deceivingly Strong Information Scent Costs Sales

To use the aviation metaphor again: Navigation structure of the website are the equivalent of pilot instruments. Clues or information scent are landmarks that help users navigate.

This might not be a definite answer but could orient towards one.

  • I'm gonna go with this answer since you were first to point out the term, and I still cannot find the the other term (or maybe I imagined it). I've already started using the term, so thanks! – tohster Mar 12 '15 at 21:27
  • @tohster happy to help! will keep looking in case you haven't imagined it :) – Okavango Mar 13 '15 at 8:16
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The phrases I'd use to describe the effect on the user are probably 'Spatial Disorientation', 'Cognitive Overload', and perhaps 'Choice Paralysis'.

I found a few articles that deal with the subject:

http://designmodo.com/infinite-scrolling/

http://www.nngroup.com/articles/scrolling-and-attention/

http://www.nngroup.com/articles/infinite-scrolling/

  • Andrew your answer seems to confuse correlation and causation. Cognitive overload could be the result of being disoriented but is not equivalent to it. Similarly, choice paralysis that refers to the paradox of choice implies that users are presented with too many options but does not necessarily lead to disorientation. – Okavango Mar 12 '15 at 8:50
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    Thanks Okavango - Noted. I was trying to express things that might be felt by the user when faced with an infinite page although I was making the assumption that an infinite page would be likely to carry many many items and, therefore, may induce cognitive overload and/or choice paralysis alongside the spatial disorientation. – Andrew Martin Mar 12 '15 at 13:40
  • +1 @AndrewMartin thanks for the answer. The articles definitely describe the sense of disorientation I was looking for. I went with Okavango's answer since he was first on the trigger with the right term, but this is really helpful. – tohster Mar 12 '15 at 21:28
  • Andrew, your answer got me thinking, particularly about choice paralysis. Of course when all three occur the experience is totally kaput :) but roughly speaking introducing visual and layout variations could reduce cognitive overload as well as spatial disorientation by making elements more distinguishable and increasing predictability! – Okavango Mar 13 '15 at 8:14

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