Save Us From Carousels

I ranted on Twitter a while ago about the fad for auto-rotating carousels, sliders, changing images, and whatever, on homepages for academic and cultural sites. Quite a few people seemed to agree with me. Well, the nasty things have not gone away since then. Quite the opposite, it seems: every other digital project, research centre, or library collection appears to have decided that its homepage simply must have some bloody great flickering, twitching gizmo taking up a large chunk of the screen. (I haven’t looked, but I have dark suspicions that some of this infestation is down to WordPress plugins just making it too damn easy.)

Why am I on a homepage? Because I’m getting my bearings, especially if it’s my first visit. I want to know what the site contains of interest to me. And I want to do this quickly so I can get to the good stuff. I’m not going to wait for a carousel to go round, like it’s a TV screen, in the hope it might eventually display something useful to me. In fact, my first reaction on realising it’s one of those is generally “Arghh!! Scroll away NOW!!” So any utility it has is pure chance: if the very first panel it displays happens to be of interest to me, and stays there long enough to let me read it and click on it, I might click on it.

Naturally, I find it hard to believe most people don’t agree with me. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps there’s loads of usability research backing up this design concept that says I’m the weirdo: most people love watching website carousels go round, find them useful entry points to a website and noooo, not distracting at all.

So I went looking around. First thing: you know what? Most developers hate them too. Second: there doesn’t actually seem to be very much empirical data, certainly not any scholarly research, though there’s plenty of anecdote. There are quite a few examples of developers and commercial UX-y people saying “yeah, we ran tests and people found them annoying”, but no numbers. I’ve found a few designers who love them because they look “cool” and “slick” and suchlike twattishness. I’ve yet to find one real website user with a good thing to say about them.

Still, what data there is says: most people don’t use them, lots of people don’t like them,  and they can actually make it harder, not easier, for people to find useful information. Users tend to blank them out as irrelevant (“banner blindness”), but worse, they make it physically harder to focus on the information around them. Flickery moving things are distracting: whodathunkit?

Accordions and carousels should show a new panel only when users ask for it. Otherwise, it should stand still and let users read the information in peace, without having the rug yanked from under them. As our user said about Siemens’ big rotating box: “I didn’t have time to read it. It keeps flashing too quickly.”

While it’s obviously less annoying, I think a standard static carousel is pretty much useless, like a new version of Mystery Meat Navigation. I want to get information, not play a “Guess what’s next?!” game. I’m not going to use it. Still, at least I’m not going to swear at you while trying to make my escape as rapidly as possible. (Though I quite like ‘accordion’ style designs with text labels that open up. Having something to tell me what’s hiding under there makes all the difference.)

“Approximately 1% of visitors click on a feature [on a static carousel on one of the ND sites]… Of these clicks, 84% were on stories in position 1″. An auto-rotating carousel on another ND site did rather better: just under 9% of visitors clicked through, with the first feature shown averaging 40% and the rest ranging from 18% down to 11%. But those are still pretty small numbers for something that’s going to piss off a significant proportion of your site visitors, aren’t they?

Reason #1: Human eye reacts to movement (and will miss the important stuff)

Reason #2: Too many messages equals no message

Frost argues the real reason we get carousels is primarily political:

From universities to giant retailers, large organizations endure their fair share of politics. And boy does that homepage look like a juicy piece of prime real estate to a roomful of stakeholders. It’s hard to navigate these mini turf wars, so tools like carousels are used as appeasers to keep everyone from beating the shit out of each other.

Also…

A final thing, for people on academic projects planning websites. E-commerce sites and the like have plenty of money for regular website re-designs and refreshes. You won’t. If you don’t want your site to look tired and dated within months it’s in your interests to avoid fads and gimmicks on your homepage. And when it’s a fad that will irritate a substantial proportion of your site visitors, and be useless to nearly all of them, please JUST SAY NO.

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