The Overflow Pattern

The overflow pattern is a technique used in fluid web designs to expose more content as screen real estate becomes available. Typically seen in carousels and data tables, the overflow pattern allows content to remain compact for small screens while still capitalizing on additional screen real estate.

Overflow Pattern on Amazon

The benefits are obvious. Exposing more content, especially for an e-commerce site like Amazon, means more chances for users to see something they’d like to buy.

Also, a common complaint with regards to mobile-first responsive design is that large screen versions of mobile-first designs look stark and vacant. The overflow pattern alleviates that problem by introducing more content to fill in the void. This pattern scales well, so small screen users all the way up to 27″ cinema display users can have a (more or less) optimized experience without having to dramatically reconfigure the interface.

Overflow Examples

Considerations

  • Make it obvious – Many users won’t know more content exists unless you provide explicit hints or controls. Use arrows, scrollbars, gestural hints, overhangs and/or timers to inform the user that they can view more content.
  • Only load what you need – This is an obvious point, but it’s worth stating anyways. If you have a carousel with 45 items in it, please don’t load all 45 by default. Many (or even most) users won’t even see the second page of carousel items, so don’t force them to download extraneous assets.
  • Treat touch as an enhancement – A swipe can be an elegant way for a user to peruse a carousel’s content, but don’t leave non-touch users out in the cold. Make sure content is always accessible no matter how a user accesses the web.

In the Wild

  • Skinny Ties – a product carousel of that exposes more ties as screen real estate increases.
  • Disney – Disney’s carousels use the overflow pattern and implement an overhang to let users know that there’s more content to be had.
  • Blackpixel – the “meet the team” section.
  • Quartz – the topic chooser in the header utilizes the overflow pattern, however I’m not convinced that the fadeout at the edges is explicit enough. It may be intuitive enough for touchscreens, but it’s definitely not obvious for mouse users to click-and-drag.
  • Wikipedia’s Mobile Site – Wikipedia’s data tables on their mobile site uses the overflow pattern to reveal additional table columns.

Demos and Resources

  • Responsive Tables (2) by Dave Bushell with accompanying demo
  • 3-up Carousel – A carousel that shows one panel on smaller screens, and reveals three panels when space becomes available.
  • Overflow Carousel – a simple demo using overflow-x to create a horizontal overflow on a list of content items.

5 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing Brad. Its always nice seeing how designers adapt and create more solutions with these consistent behaviors. Also appreciate your patterns site, and posts. Thanks…Drew

  2. Thank you for the great article. Especially like your considerate considerations.

  3. Another great set of examples. Keep it coming.

  4. As always, well put and great points. Especially about not loading all the assets at once. I totally agree with that in theory, but haven’t had a case where that way necessary.

  5. This is a pretty good article, I am going to have to bookmark it for my clients that are hesitant to break out of the 960 grid.