Among those who have tried OS X Lion for the first time, there is near universal dismay at the “reverse scrolling” behavior in the Apple-provided applications. It’s a big change in the way we use computers, but has the scrollbar’s time passed?


Among those who have tried OS X Lion for the first time, there is near universal dismay at the “reverse scrolling” behavior in the Apple-provided applications. It feels strange to push your fingers up on the trackpad to see content that is further down in the document, when we have had years of practice moving our fingers down instead.

The difference is best understood as a change in the user’s point of view. Instead of pulling the scrollbar down, you push the content up. The change signals a huge shift not just in scroll direction, but in user interface design where gestures are used to manipulate content instead of on-screen interface controls like scrollbars and sliders.

Scrollbar, We Hardly Knew Ye

The venerable scrollbar has been with us for ages. It was probably invented at Xerox PARC in the 70s, well before the graphic user interface (GUI) Macintosh was released in 1984. Back in those days, if you wanted to control something in the GUI, you had to be able to point at a control and click on it. The scrollbar was an obvious visual control to manipulate an application’s viewport, the section of content visible in the current window. It was versatile as well. The scroller not only provided the means to move the viewport, but its position also indicated where you were in the document.

One of the first steps away from direct manipulation of visual controls was the scroll wheel mouse, introduced in 1995 as a different way to move the scrollbar. Apple’s touch-sensitive trackpad and Mighty Mouse later used two-finger gestures for scrolling. However, the controls were still present on the screen to provide visual feedback on the scroller position.

The downside of the GUI was that every control needed to take up some real estate on the screen. Pretty soon we had apps with toolbars that were bigger than the content area.


After over 25 years of scrollbars in Mac OS X, Apple was willing to rethink the UI for the touchscreen when the iPhone was introduced. Gestures provide a way around the need for an on-screen control for every GUI interaction and devote more space to the content itself (quite important on a small screen). Scrollbars were no longer controls, and remained only as a visual indicator of where you were. Instead, you moved content in the viewport by direct manipulation – you pushed the content itself up or down by making a gesture with your finger. This direct manipulation of the content itself is so intuitive on a touchscreen that even toddlers quickly grasp its use.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

On the touchscreen we have grown accustomed to using gestures to manipulate content directly. Unfortunately, when applied to the desktop this approach creates some cognitive dissonance for longtime Mac users as we try to use two-finger scrolling or mouse gestures they way we were taught, to move scrollbars indirectly.

What If You Don’t Know About Gestures?

Because the scrollbar fades out of view until moved, the scrollbars are not easily discovered and there is no visual indication of how to move content in the viewport. We rely on our memory of when we used to see scrollbars. In some applications like Safari, it is not clear where we are in the viewport because there is no scroller or thumb to tell us. Not only is it nigh impossible to discover how to scroll the content for someone unfamiliar with gestures, there is no indication (beyond cut off graphics and text) that you *need* to scroll down the page to see anything below the current viewport.

As it stands, the Lion UI is also a bit inconsistent now. Mail, Address Book, iCal, Safari, etc. all sport the new fading scroll indicators. However, iTunes still uses a scrollbar. Of course, gestures work the iOS way, and the scrollbar works the Mac way. Confusing. I have to think that other controls on desktop apps that could be replaced with gestures, like the zoom slider in iPhoto, might also disappear eventually.

Frankly, Apple’s human interface guidelines and enforcement of those guidelines in the App Store become even more important once you widely adopt gestures. They just need to be consistent. If you can’t see a control on-screen, you are going to try standard gestures. Developers must adhere to those expected behaviors if users are to have any chance of figuring out how to scroll. Can you imagine an app with no scrollbar on-screen that requires you to use four-finger swipes to scroll? How would you figure that out? Would you bother before deleting the app in frustration? Could you imagine a future with mandatory 3-minute introductory videos to explain all the non-standard gestures?

It’s Not All Bad

The scrollbar in OS X Lion does have an advantage in that it doesn’t take up as much space and visual weight in the interface. Gestures provide enough flexibility in control schemes that we don’t have to rely on a mouse click on the scrollbar control to move the viewport and a mouse click on the content to move the cursor. We have multiple ways to interact directly with the content. Content is highlighted before UI controls. What remains to be seen is if the change will prove as comfortable in practice as the theory might suggest.

  1. I am not a huge fan of the fading scrollbars. On iOS devices I find myself constantly having to scroll up or down so I can see the scrollbar to see where I am in a document or webpage. I like that visual reminder.

    1. The “invisible” scroll position gets me more than the reverse in direction. I suspect most people will get used to the change in direction a lot faster than getting used to not knowing where they are in a document, web page, etc.

  2. Andrew Macdonald Wednesday, May 4, 2011

    I never thought Id find myself writing this, but I actually love the reverse scrolling.

    I installed the dev preview about 8 weeks ago, and hated reverse scrolling at first. After 20 years using the ‘normal’ scroll direction, I didn’t understand why this had to change. After a few days of using Lion, I went back to work and used my works ‘Snow Leopard’ machine and to my surprise, I kept getting my scroll direction wrong, thinking I was still using Lion.

    It got to the point where I downloaded a scroll-reversing application on Snow Leopard so that it matched the direction in the dev preview of Lion. After getting used to it for a few days, you’ll be surprised at how natural it feels to scroll up for your content to go down.

    As I said, I know thats hard to believe, but I’ve been using the normal scroll direction for 20 years, after three days in Lion, Im hooked on the new way to scroll in Lion.

  3. “Near universal dismay?” I don’t think so.

    I have to concur with Andrew – “reverse scrolling” (awful name for it) feels far more natural to me, once you get used to it.

    I actually don’t have access to Lion at all (not being a Mac dev), but I deliberately sought out and installed the “Scroll Reverser” Mac app for Snow Leopard in mid-April. Admittedly, the first few days were quite wonky, but after that it’s been smooth sailing. Less than a month later, it feels completely natural, and I don’t even think about it anymore.

    Even though there’s still the indirection of manipulating a trackpad to move content on the screen, it feels like there’s one less layer of indirection between you and your computer.

    Also, your article fails to mention that, in Lion, this is a configurable setting – you can, if you so choose, click a checkbox to keep scrolling the “old” way. Not sure if this feature will survive the developer previews into the final version, but it’s something that should have been mentioned.

    1. @spade I am referring to the dismay you feel the first time you try it. You’re right that it doesn’t take that long to get used to it.

      1. Aaron Strader Thursday, May 5, 2011

        So, you like it or you don’t like it?

        I have other reasons for not wanting to upgrade to Lion, least of all is reverse scrolling. Considering that I play games with inverted controls and I have an iPhone and an iPad, I’m surprised I never really noticed that it was not inverted on my magic trackpad.

        I’m installing scroll reverser on my Snow Leopard and give it awhirl. I bet I’ll survive.

        If you think about the natural movement of the hand when holding paper when reading, this is no different. You move and gesture your hands up to pull up the bottom of the document and you push your hands down to go back up to the top of the page. What the scroll bar has done so far is to basically act like a page position marker and not much else. For intuitive movement, scrolling from the top to the bottom in the way that we’ve been told to on computers is far from our natural movement.

  4. I’ve been playing with Lion for a while now and decided this week to get one of the new iMacs ahead of the Lion release because there are too many things in it that I do not want to be forced in to using on that machine. I have upgraded to every version of OS X since its release and I am not sure if I want to upgrade this time.

    The reverse scrolling works great on the iPad and is not too bad with a trackpad, but it is very confusing with a mouse. I am unhappy about some of the general interface changes that, while making it very Jobsian, remove features I used such as the button to turn off the window toolbar. Gone also is Rosetta, so if you use any legacy software you are going to struggle. Most applications are now universal, but if you need to install something older (and there are some) you will be SOL.

  5. I too was a bit confused at first by reverse scrolling, but I now prefer it. After spending more time on my iPad, the way I use my devices is much more consistent and I see where Apple is going with this. Oddly, when I’m at work and using a traditional trackball on Snow Leopard, I can work without thinking the traditional way. Put me with a Magic Mouse, and I automatically start using gestures. Like riding a bike.

    I have not had a laptop in years and have never used the Apple trackpad but I’m considering buying one for my iMac now that I am so happy with gestures.

  6. iTunes being inconsistent, imagine that.

    Scrolling on touchscreens didn’t have any practical considerations, it just works intuitively.

    Trackpads… less so. It’s not like you’re touching the screen. As many people have pointed out, it doesn’t really matter which setting is “normal,” so I’m sitting here asking why this is anything more than change for the sake of change.

  7. While Lion’s literal-ish scrolling does make sense, and I could quickly adjust and appreciate the difference, the lack of scroll bar annoys me for two reasons. First, with the Finder and the column view, it’s more challenging to find the hidden scroll to double-click and auto expand the width; second, with long articles, I have to manually gesture with my trackpad to invoke the scroll to determine where my position in an article. It has surprised me, how ofter I look at the scroll bar in Snow Leopard to determine if I’m at 1/4 into an article, or 1/2, or at the end. It’s annoying to have to toggle the mouse to invoke this visual reference.

  8. If you’re a healthy human being with a functional nervous system, there’s no reason why you won’t become accustomed to a change like this.

    Cripes. Why leap into panic mode over re-learning a few synapses?

  9. Finally!
    In years past, when you wanted to “Start Receiving” a call on Motorolla’s early cell phones, you had to push a “red Send” button.
    When you wanted to “Stop” running windows on a PC, you had to click on the “Start” button.
    Why geeks initially design stuff to be totally counterintuitive is beyone my comprehension. Apple’s finally going to make scrolling work the way it always should have.

    1. These are great examples of implementing the UI to follow the engineering documents, rather than taking a user-centric view. I agree that scroll gestures are more intuitive when you put the user and the content first, rather than putting the priority on the UI controls themselves.

  10. Does this affect the arrow keys and/or page up/down keys behavior?


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