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Creating practical Instagram-like galleries and horizontal lists with CSS scroll snapping

Joost Kiens
Front(\-| ?)end dev. Mainly UI animation and ReactJS.
・7 min read

What's the difference between carousels and horizontally scrollable lists? Is it the gestures, snapping, or the number of visible items? They are very similar, especially on touch devices.

I looked at the Instagram iOS app to learn more and noticed 3 different elements you can scroll horizontally.

I set out to build these 3 elements based on the same code, mainly CSS. Here’s what I learned.

Three scrollable elements

Free-scrolling horizontal lists

Screen capture of Free-scrolling horizontal list
A horizontal list that overflows its boundaries. You can freely scroll left and right. Netflix and Spotify use it everywhere on mobile, Instagram uses it for its stories.

It uses a bit of old school CSS, like overflow-x, and is improved with more experimental rules.

Snapping horizontal lists

Screen capture of snapping horizontal list
The same as free-scrolling horizontal lists, but the nearest item in the list snaps into place. Like the “Suggested for You” section in the Instagram app.

Here we have to add some newer CSS, like scroll-snapping. On older browsers, it degrades gracefully to the first version 👊. This makes it a very practical solution to use in production.

A gallery

Screen capture of the gallery
This is similar to snapping horizontal lists, but displaying one item at a time. An example is the Instagram Gallery. There's a row of dots below, one for each image, to indicate there are more images and which image we are currently viewing.

The code is also identical to the second one. However, we don't need the gap and padding plus we add a few lines of JavaScript using the IntersectionObserver to show which dot corresponds to the currently visible image.

Building the 3 different versions

Free-scrolling horizontal lists

We make a horizontal list with the list-items in a horizontal row by using flex-box and we allow the list to scroll horizontally.

The list-items get an explicit size and a gap in between.

We set padding, larger than the gap, so we can see when we've scrolled to the beginning or end of the list.

.list {
  display: flex;
  padding: 20px;
  overflow-x: scroll;
}

.item {
  height: 224px;
  width: 125px;
  flex-shrink: 0;
}

.item:not(:last-child) { margin-right: 10px; }

You can see it here:

It works, but we can improve it:

Contain overscrolling

For some browsers, a swipe left is like using the back button. Try it out by forcefully scrolling to the beginning of the list. We can prevent this by setting the overscroll-behavior to contain.

Hide the scrollbar

We can hide the scrollbar initially by setting overflow-x to auto. However, when you start scrolling it will appear again. We can set the scrollbar-width to none to completely hide it. At the time of writing, this only works in Firefox, so we add the following mess of unstandardized bastard CSS to hide it in other browsers:

.list { -ms-overflow-style: none; }
.list::-webkit-scrollbar { display: none; }

Looks much better, but if you feel this hurts accessibility or your CSS-purist-heart, you can leave it out and use overflow-x: auto instead.

Momentum scrolling

In iOS it lacks the standard momentum scrolling. We can tell the browser to scroll use momentum scrolling by setting the non-standard: -webkit-overflow-scrolling: touch;.

Prevent vertical scrolling

We can scroll the page vertically while interacting with the list. We can disable this for touchscreen users by adding touch-action: pan-x to the list. However, if your list covers the entire viewport, this will prevent the user from scrolling vertically. Best use it with caution!

List padding

There's something weird going on with the padding of the .list. It's on the start, but it has disappeared in the end 😕. To be honest, I have no idea why this occurs. There's a hacky fix though: an absolutely positioned (pseudo) element with a width of the padding peaking out of the scrolling items.

It's ugly and it doesn't make any sense! How does this even work? However, it is important that there is a padding, so it's clear that we've scrolled to the end of the list. With pain in our hearts, we'll add it.

So now the CSS looks like this:

.list {
  display: flex;
  padding: 20px;
  overflow-x: scroll;
  overscroll-behavior: contain;
  scrollbar-width: none;
  touch-action: pan-x;
  -ms-overflow-style: none;
  -webkit-overflow-scrolling: touch;
}

.list::-webkit-scrollbar { display: none; }

.item {
  height: 224px;
  width: 125px;
  flex-shrink: 0;
}

.item:not(:last-child) { margin-right: 10px; }

/* hacky fix for padding at the end of the list */
.item:last-child {
  position: relative;
}

.item:last-child::after {
  position: absolute;
  left: 100%;
  height: 1px;
  width: 20px;
  display: block;
  content: "";
}

And it looks like this:

Snapping Horizontal lists

Next we add scroll snapping. First, we tell the list to always stop scrolling at a horizontal snapping point.

.list {
  scroll-snap-type: x mandatory;
}

And to the list-items we add scroll-snap-align: start;, which means we snap to the start: on the left if you are using English or another left to right language*.

If we look at “Suggested for You” on Instagram, the previous item is always peaking out a little bit. Turns out we can set the scroll padding on: scroll-padding-inline-start: 20px;. (Note: I added scroll-padding-left, since Safari lacks support for inline-start at the moment.)

It is possible to swipe more items with one swipe. This is not possible on Instagram. We can add scroll-snap-stop: always; to the list-items, but browser support is is still spotty for now.

That’s it!

*) On the right for the RTL homies out there 👋

Instagram-like gallery

If we make the list-items as wide as the scrolling area, and remove the padding and gap, it looks and behaves pretty much like the Instagram gallery. Except for the little indicator dots. Without the dots it will look like this:

We want to have these indicator dots, though. They are there for 3 reasons:

  • Indicate that there is more to see, so it is clear a user can swipe to the next item.
  • Indicate which image is currently visible.
  • Indicate we have scrolled to the first or last item.

The easiest way is to let the browser take care of determining which item is visible by using the IntersectionObserver.

We make a list of dots, each dot corresponds to an image. When an item is visible (intersecting) in the list, we get that item’s index and set the indicator dot with the corresponding index to active.

This is what it will look like, see the comments in the code above each section for an explanation of each step.

// references to DOM elements
const list = document.querySelector('.list');
const items = Array.from(document.querySelectorAll('.item'));
const indicators = Array.from(document.querySelectorAll('.indicator'));

// create an observer with the list as intersection root
const observer = new IntersectionObserver(onIntersectionObserved, {
  root: list,
  threshold: 0.6
});

// observe each item
items.forEach(item => {
  observer.observe(item);
});

// when the observer detects an entry changing 
// (item entering or exiting  list)
// and the entry is intersecting
// get the intersecting item’s index
// set the correct indicator to active
function onIntersectionObserved(entries) {
  entries.forEach(entry => {
    if (entry.isIntersecting) {
      const intersectingIndex = items.indexOf(entry.target);
      activateIndicator(intersectingIndex);
    }
  });
}

// toggle an `active` class on the indicators
function activateIndicator(index) {
  indicators.forEach((indicator, i) => {
    indicator.classList.toggle('active', i === index);
  });
}

Here’s how it looks

A note on threshold
We set the threshold to 0.6. This means that if 60% of the item is visible, it counts as intersecting.

If we set it to 1, we only count a completely visible item as intersecting. This would work fine with scroll snapping enabled, but doesn’t work as well with free-scrolling on older browsers without support for scroll snapping (perhaps with an IntersectionObserver polyfill).

When we lower the threshold to somewhere below 1, we count a partly visible item as intersecting. If it’s 0.5 or below, multiple items could be intersecting. So 0.6 seems like a reasonable value.

Conclusion

The bad

Since this uses native scrolling it is not possible to adjust the way the movement feels, we can’t control the ‘stickiness’ of the snapping or the ‘decay’ of the scroll motion. This is decided by the browser. If there’s a need to have control over this, I would choose a more JavaScript-heavy solution. Finally, it's definitely not the most pretty CSS with a hack and a few non-standard properties.

The good

The small amount of code is pretty awesome. And the way it gracefully degrades in older browsers makes this a pretty solid technique in my opinion.

I don't know the constraints which led to the decision to not use native scrolling for the Instagram gallery on their website, but I feel native scroll snapping feels more natural.

What about desktop?

While horizontal scrolling feels very natural on touch devices, it is a little awkward and unintuitive on desktop. Buttons to move to the left and right help, the Instagram website does this as well.

Happy hacking, and let me know if you would use this technique in production. 🤘

Bonus tip: if you want to use the indicators as navigation, scrollIntoView({ behavior: 'smooth', inline: 'start' }) is a good place to start!

Discussion (9)

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electrifried profile image
Jaclyn Tan

Do you think it would be easy enough to add click events to the indicators or arrows to this implementation? To allow for the people that don't have magic mice or touch screens...

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joostkiens profile image
Joost Kiens Author • Edited

Yeah, of course! The indicators are easiest: if we know the index of the clicked indicator, we can tell the corresponding item to scrollIntoView.

indicators.forEach((x, i) =>
  x.addEventListener("click", () =>
    items[i].scrollIntoView({ inline: "start", behavior: "smooth" })
  )
);

For the arrows we could keep track of the current active index:

const state = { active: 0 };
//...

function activateIndicator(index) {
  state.active = index;
  indicators.forEach((indicator, i) => {
    indicator.classList.toggle("active", i === state.active);
  });
}

and scrollIntoView the prev or next one.

prev.addEventListener("click", () => {
  items[state.active - 1]?.scrollIntoView({
    inline: "start",
    behavior: "smooth"
  });
});

next.addEventListener("click", () => {
  items[state.active + 1]?.scrollIntoView({
    inline: "start",
    behavior: "smooth"
  });
});

But the options of scrollIntoView are not supported by Safari 🙁. So no smooth scrolling.
We can add a polyfill, and it works across modern browsers:

<script src="https://polyfill.io/v3/polyfill.min.js?features=IntersectionObserver,Element.prototype.scrollIntoView"></script>

I made a quick demo.

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electrifried profile image
Jaclyn Tan

Ohh that is so cool. Thanks so much for the demo I really appreciate it!

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lyunya profile image
lyunya

hey Joost,

This is exactly what I was looking for! Thank you! I'm trying to implement the arrow buttons for desktop, but having some difficulty since i'm building this in react. Do you know of an easy way to implement this solution in react?

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shtep profile image
jim shtepa • Edited

Hello Joost, thank you for the detailed step by step tutorial. I tried to reimplement the arrow button to scroll horizontally but am struggling to make it work. If you have 2 mins, could you please help to understand what I am doing wrong? here is the link to source code

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Edwin Torres

Heyyy Joost! Really nice your examples. :D I don't know if it is for the sandbox the I had to use the keys (left-right) to scroll it.

Cheers!

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Joost Kiens Author

Hi Edwin, thanks so much for letting me know🙏!

They should be fine now😅

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Elissavet Triantafyllopoulou

Hello Joost and thank you!

So, I wanted to make a horizontal slider/carousel using the Intersection Observer API and came across your article.

I think this solution is really neat and can work even in production with a polyfill.

This is my testing demo: codepen.io/elisavetTriant/pen/OJWvOyr, which is actually for a CodePen challenge named "Scrolling Microinteraction" (codepen.io/challenges/2021/april/2)

I tried to make it work with responsive settings on the container/wrapper element so I made some adjustments on the observer callback function.