Reaction Time (2)

A few weeks ago I wrote Reaction Time explaining the art of relative interactivity.

Today I found another perfect example!

I’m using a technique based on Ariel Flesler’s excellent jQuery scrollTo plugin. The plugin scrolls the document until a specific element is in view. The set up: I have several tabs on my page that update content below them. I want to scroll to that content as a visual guide for users to indicate what has changed and to bring it center stage. It’s a fully responsive design so on small screens this interaction is very useful.

The simplest jQuery implementation would look like this:

var target = $('#target');
$(window).scrollTo(target, { duration: 500 });

That will do exactly what I want, once bound to a click event — why go any further?

Because that’s going to suck.

The .scrollTo(); method takes a few options but the basic ones I care about are the duration (milliseconds) and an easing function (that “specifies the speed at which the animation progresses at different points within the animation”). I’ve chosen an ease-in-out function that starts slowly and builds up pace before decelerating again, similar to how a car would travel from A–B providing there are no barriers. I assume, I don’t drive so my car analogies are a bit flaky. Just trust me, this easing effect adds a touch of class.

That constant 500 millisecond duration is lazy and unresponsive. The distance I need to scroll is never constant, it depends on where the user has previously scrolled to (prior to clicking a tab). The shorter the distance the quicker we should arrive at the destination.

Here’s a generic evolution of my JavaScript:

var target = $('#target');

/* get the document height and window height */
var doc_height = $(document).height();
var win_height = $(window).innerHeight();

/* bail if the whole document is visible */
if (doc_height <= win_height)
    return false;

/* get the current scroll offset and target offset */
var offset = $(window).scrollTop();
var target_offset = target.offset().top;

/* calculate a positive distance between the offsets */
var distance = Math.abs(offset - target_offset);

/* if we are scrolling down and can go no further... */
if (offset < target_offset) {
    var max_offset = (doc_height - win_height);
    if (target_offset > max_offset)
        distance -= target_offset - max_offset;

/* if there is a need to scroll, wait for updates before doing so */
if (distance) {
    setTimeout(function() {
            { scrollTop: target_offset },
            distance * 2,
    }, 500);

The setTimeout delay is purely for my benefit because other actions need to happen before scrolling is initiated. The magic number 2 is simply a multiplier to slow things down. What’s important is that the animation always starting with a duration relative to the distance.

You may ask: “What’s the point, do people really notice such subtleties?”

**To which I would reply: “No, but they will notice if they’re missing.”**

It’s this sort of care that I believe produces the best possible experience for all devices. Interactivity should aid the user in a way that they’re not even conscious is happening — it should just work. A lot of JavaScript I see on the web today is a massive distraction. I hope this post illustrates the effort needed in interactive design.

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