A big banner at the top of the home page with a series of images that fade or slide in and out is known as a carousel and they are almost always bad. They show a lack of focus, they slow down your website (which directly costs you money), they aren’t logical, and your users generally ignore them.
Lack of focus
When a carousel is on a website what it is saying is, “We can’t decide on our main message so here are five”. Websites should have one main message we want our users to understand unambiguously. A carousel is a lazy way to avoid doing that.
When we find ourselves thinking of a carousel, the best idea is to take a step back and consider exactly what our main message is.
More prosaically if a carousel has 5 items and they genuinely are important why would we only show each 20% of the time? It doesn’t make sense.
Slow (cost money)
A lot of code is required to make a carousel work, and all of it has to be downloaded before it will work. The really badly implemented ones will download all that code before any of the content appears on a website. In some lower-powered but very common phones and tablets it will choke them and the page will never load.
I’ve written before about the positive effect of fast websites on turnover and conversions. Using a carousel is one of the things that will decrease the effectiveness of your website as a tool to solve business problems, achieve business objectives and allow your users to do what they came for.
I’ve uploaded a screenshot of the code required to run a simple carousel. Be warned it’s a 2 megabyte image so you might not want to click that link if you’re on a data plan or crappy connection.
If you do click it you will see that when a carousel is implemented the developer has a lot of typing to do! (Only joking, we don’t type all that out. To be truthful we don’t need the half of it, it would just take weeks to go through it all and remove the parts we don’t need so we will probably just copy and paste something off the internet or an old site and hope for the best.)
Picture this scenario: you are on the web looking for information or to complete a task. Let’s say you want a price for a set of spanners.
You get a list of search results in your favourite search engine and click the one that looks most relevant to your needs. It turns out the site has a spanners section with a link in the main navigation.
But wait! There’s a carousel! You stop what you’re doing and sit back in your seat taking 5 seconds to read and absorb the message of each slide in a carousel.
Do that right now. Stop what your doing and count 5 seconds 5 times.
It never happens. We just don’t behave like that on websites. The idea that our users will because we really want them to is false.
Our users come to our websites to find information or complete a task that will improve their life in some (usually small) way. They want to do it quickly then move on with their life, and they want your website to help them with that.
Now you may be thinking, “Hold on, sometimes I go to websites when I’m bored just to browse products or read long articles. It’s not always a quick task.”
That’s true, we do sometimes take our time on websites. After all you’re reading this, not just looking for our phone number or stats on one of our case studies.
The difference is when people are browsing products, laughing at pictures or reading blog posts they are consuming real content, not a slideshow of marketing messages. Mindlessly browsing is what users want to do sometimes. They need the next page to load quickly, they don’t need a carousel slowing them down.
People ignore carousels
shouldiuseacarousel.com is one of my favourite single page websites and it uses a carousel to highlight why they are ineffective.
It mentions a few usability studies that have been carried out to gauge the effectiveness of carousels, or rather how much of a disaster they are.
In one study the carousel had specific, important things for users to click on in each slide. These slides contained the most important actions for users to perform from the point of view of the site owner.
Only 1% of people who landed on the home page interacted with the carousel, and 89% of that 1% interacted with the first slide. Shocking.
In another study users consistently failed to complete the task set for them even though the button was a big feature in a carousel. They missed it completely.
People missing the content in carousels is a consistent theme in usability studies. If you have some content you don’t want people to read, then a carousel is the way to go.
The reason for this may be a phenomenon known as banner blindness. We’ve been using the web for almost 25 years now and in that time ads have appeared like warts all over the place.
Anyone who’s been using the web for any length of time knows what’s an ad without even looking. We’ve trained ourselves to ignore those parts of web pages that appear in our peripheral vision trying to sell us the thing we bought on Amazon yesterday, convince us we really need to find out how to be more attractive or let us claim a non-existent prize.
It appears a lot of people instinctively put carousels squarely into the bin of web cruft.
Don’t use carousels on the home page of your website. They will not do what you think they’re doing.
There are exceptions. If you have a step by step process that requires user input at each step a carousel can be useful. Whether or not it needs animated is another question that should be carefully considered, although to be fair animation done well usually helps an interface.
Same goes for an area that users can control with clearly labelled controls. A row of small dots or arrows either side of the thing is not clear labelling.
If there is a set of controls that list your main services and pressing each one changes the content to show a useful introduction to each service then it can work. To be honest though I think that’s stretching the definition of a carousel. It’s a different type of component in my view.