Summary: Long listings might need pagination by default, but if users customize the display to View All list items, respect that preference.
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 destination page.
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.
View All Items
Many users like to see all options on a single page, rather than clicking from page to page looking at products. In user testing, we’ve often found a View All option to be helpful to some users. More important, the View All option didn’t bother users who didn’t use it; when it wasn’t offered, however, some users complained.
View All is particularly important for lists that cannot be sorted well, as well as for items that are more a question of individual taste than of specific attributes. In domains such as fashion, art, flowers, and even chocolates, users might well prefer to scan many items than to be limited to a few per page.
As useful as View All is, however, there should be an upper limit to the number of items displayed. Large databases can easily generate thousands—even millions—of hits for certain queries, and it doesn’t make sense to produce listings that stretch that long.
Typically, this upper limit should be around 100 items, though it can be more or less depending on how easy it is for users to scan items and how much a long page impacts the response time.
View All is usually better than the annoying infinitely scrolling web pages that keep loading new stuff when you approach the bottom, because these pages don't give users a sense of closure or power over the navigation. For the same reasons, pagination is usually better than infinite scrolling if there are too many items to display on a reasonably long page.
View N Items
Many sites let users choose how many items they’ll see on each page. This is often overkill, as when pop-up menus let users View 10, 20, 30, 40 items per screen.
It’s usually better to offer a single default number—such as 10 or 20—and supplement it with View All for people who want more. Instead of a pop-up menu, this design requires only a simple button and is thus much faster to operate.
Alternatively, if View All would generate an unwieldy page, give users the choice between two numbers, say 10 and 50, where the second number is substantially bigger than the default.
If the choice is between two relatively similar numbers (such as 10 and 20), users might as well click the Next Page button rather than suffer the cognitive overhead of trying to decide their display preference.
When providing a choice of display options, the computer should almost always respect the user’s stated preference and employ it as the default the next time around. I am amazed at how many sites and applications don’t do this and instead force users to repeat their choices again and again.
Usability research on customization features has shown two things:
- Most users don’t want to customize; they prefer to simply use the default settings. It is thus the designer’s responsibility to pick the optimal default setting that will benefit the most users, because that’s all most users will ever experience.
- Customization features are user interfaces in their own right and have their own usability problems, especially when designers go overboard and offer users too many choices.
The View All feature doesn’t have these problems, nor does the View 20 vs. View 100 option. Both cases have many advantages:
- Customization occurs in the task context—right when and where people might want to change the display options—as opposed to requiring an excursion into a Preferences screen.
- The choices are easy to understand and don’t require instructions.
- Executing the choice is easy, assuming you offer only one alternative to the default display (rather than having users open a pop-up and then face the additional decision of whether to expand from, say, 10 items to 20, 30, or 40).
What’s not to like about View All—or View Big-N, if you can’t offer View All? For sure, it’s smart to offer this feature, but please do remember users’ preferences once they’ve gone to the trouble of stating them.