Save the Scrollbar!

Why are Apple, Google, and Facebook eradicating a linchpin of user interface design?

When I noticed the scrollbars were missing on my smartphone, I didn’t care all that much. When I’m reading an article on a tiny screen, I don’t want anything to distract me from the text. User interface experts refer to all this extra material—the operating system’s borders, menus, and widgets—as “chrome,” and the test of the value of a given piece of chrome is whether you miss it when it’s gone. On the iPhone and other touchscreen phones, the scrollbar—that vertical or horizontal line that tells you how much more of an article lies beyond the screen—only appears when you touch the screen. When your finger is at rest, the scrollbar disappears. And on my phone, at least, I don’t miss it when it’s gone.

But then the scrollbars on my Mac disappeared. And I’ve noticed scrollbars evaporating across the Web as well. This is a maddening trend, and I don’t know what’s come over the interface designers of the world—it’s as if they’ve been gripped by a fashion trend that prizes aesthetics over function, the technological equivalent of sagging or Lady Gaga’s 10-inch heels. It’s time for the scrollers of the world to stand united and say, “Enough!”

I can understand the impulse here: Most scrollbars are kind of ugly. Even the skinny, rounded gray bar that Apple invented for the iPhone isn’t the prettiest interface element ever designed. But as unpleasant as they may be to look at, scrollbars serve a purpose on a busy screen: They tell you, at a glance, where you are in a list or a document. Because most modern scrollbars are proportional to the size of the document you’re looking at, they also give you a sense of how much lies off-screen—the smaller the scrollbar, the larger the document. And when you don’t see a scrollbar—or when the scrollbar is dimmed—this usually means there’s nothing outside the screen to look at.

This might not sound very important. But you don’t know you need all the information a scrollbar conveys until it’s gone. When scrollbars disappear, you feel at sea: Are there more songs left in that iTunes playlist? Are there Facebook status updates that you’re not seeing? That folder looks like it has only three files in it—that can’t be right, can it? In the age of disappearing scrollbars, the only way to know is to move your cursor. And that’s unbelievably annoying.

If you want to blame someone for the disappearing scrollbar trend—and I really do—blame Apple. When you load up Lion, Apple’s latest Mac OS, you’ll see that most windows—from the Finder to iTunes to Web pages in Safari—show up without scrollbars. The bars only appear when you move your cursor over a window and then attempt to scroll (either with your mouse wheel or by using a touch gesture on your track pad). When you do so, you’ll see that Lion has copied the scrollbar design from Apple’s mobile iOS. Scrollbars on the Mac used to be fat and candy blue, but now they’re skinny, gray, and—crucially—lack the arrow buttons that let you scroll with a single click. They also show up for just an instant; once you stop scrolling, the bars disappear.

The first time you encounter this, you’ll think, Whoa, that’s a terrible bug Apple forgot to fix! In reality, though, the company touts these “overlay scrollbars” as a key feature of the new OS. It doesn’t say why these ephemeral scrollbars are better than the old bars, and reaction from critics has been squarely negative. On the bright side, there is a way to make the scrollbars go back to normal. (While you’re at it, turn off Lion’s dastardly “natural scrolling,” too.) But who knows how long Apple will pity the scrollbar dependent—in the next version of the OS, they could be gone for good.

I initially brushed off Lion’s disappearing scrollbars as one of Apple’s misguided efforts to achieve aesthetic minimalism at the cost of usability (e.g., Steve Jobs banishing arrow keys from the original Mac). I suspected that no sane UI expert outside Cupertino would replicate Lion’s scrollbar design. But then, while goofing off on Facebook a few weeks ago, I noticed something strange: In its latest redesign, the social network added two lists to the right side of my screen—the “ticker,” which shows real-time updates from my network, and a list of friends who are currently free to chat. Neither one of these lists is accompanied by scrollbars. Just like in Lion, the scrollbars only appear when you move your mouse over the window and begin to scroll.

OK, so maybe it’s just Apple and Facebook? That wouldn’t be so bad, right? But wait! Last week Google unveiled a new design for Gmail, and it also monkeys with scrollbars. For one thing, Gmail’s main scroller is bespoke; in some browsers, the site displays a square-cornered, light-gray bar that is different from every other scrollbar on your operating system. I can’t imagine why Google wanted to redesign the scrollbar—what’s wrong with using the same one that’s in the rest of your OS?—but if it really needed to create its own scroller, couldn’t it have come up with something a little snappier?

Thankfully, Gmail’s main scrollbar is persistent—it doesn’t disappear when you stop scrolling. But when I looked at the left side of my screen, I noticed that the Gchat contacts list lacked a scrollbar. When I moused over and began to scroll, sure enough, the scrollbar appeared—and then disappeared.

By now I was panicked: From Lion to Facebook to Gmail, the disappearing scrollbar virus looked to be spreading beyond anyone’s control. After some research, I found one more example, and this was the biggest, scariest one of all. A prototype of Windows 8, which will go on sale next year, shows that some parts of that OS may also hide scrollbars. If Microsoft gets a hold of this trend, scrollbars may well be doomed—hundreds of millions of PCs around the world will see their scrollbars flicker away.

Don’t let this happen! As a humble technology columnist, I have no power to bring back scrollbars, but I can beseech you, computer users of the world, to stand up for your right to see where you are in a document. Disappearing scrollbars represented a true advance in mobile interface design, but—in the same way that a touchscreen isn’t the best interface for every device—these ephemeral scrollbars don’t make sense on larger screens. There are ways to create scrollbars that are both aesthetically pleasing and useful. In its latest release, the open-source operating system Ubuntu includes skinny scrollbars that expand when you mouse over them; when your cursor isn’t in a window, the skinny scrollbars remain, telling you that there’s stuff you’re not seeing. It’s a simple, elegant solution, one that proves that scrollbars can adapt to modern times. This should be a lesson to Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. Scrollbars have so much more to give us. Please don’t kill them before it’s their time to go.