When I was in high school there was this guy named Josh that was always at our parties. Josh was around 5 years older than all of us and at the time it was awesome, we had this older friend who hung out and bought us beer. The math was easy Josh=beer beer=girls girls=awesome. At some point though, the logic breaks through and everyone realizes older dudes hanging out with high school girls is probably not ok. I think to some extent, we’ve all seen that kind of thing happen and over the last couple of years we’ve been watching image carousels slowly but surely become the “Josh” of the web.
Image carousels? Sliders? Whirlygigs? Whatever they’re called - why are we using these? Is it push from a client? Is it an established design patter? We need to take a step back as an industry and ask this question (again), because the numbers are in, and it’s not looking so good. The University of Notre Dame’s Web Director recently did a couple of studies to test the efficacy of their top level featured image carousels and the results are mostly depressing. The first study’s summary is kind of shocking:
"Approximately 1% of visitors click on a feature. There was a total of 28,928 clicks on features for this time period. The feature was manually “switched/rotated” a total of 315,665 times. Of these clicks, 84% were on stories in position 1 with the rest split fairly evenly between the other four (~4% each)."
The follow up with six month totals is only slightly less bleak. So this is a real problem, it’s not an isolated thing where those of us working on mom and pop sites are having a hell of a time because they demand an image carousel. This is something systemic that’s happening on sites big and small and we can assume that among a large cross section of our industry, the stats are similar.1
We might very well receive a response of “Well, big deal, I use my carouslidagig for branding and informational purposes.” and that’s totally ok, but let’s talk usability, accessibility and payload. If our primary goal is to deliver stunning websites at a small payload that are user focused, then carousels are standing in the way of meeting those metrics. The size of the website very obviously goes up when using an image slider so I’m not going to make a series of points regarding that. Usability and accessibility are where the real damage is potentially done. Look at five websites with image carousels and tell me how many are auto forwarding on a 3-5 second delay… I’ll wait……….
Ok, it’s likely that if not all of them, definitely a majority of them fit those characteristics. Now, how well does that work for someone with accessibility needs? Right, it’s not ideal. Usability is the final but, I would think, the most important of the three because we’re talking about the ability of the user to use the site. I would venture to guess that of the five randomly picked image slider sites you picked a few minutes ago, at least one of them is terrible on mobile, another is confusing or hard to navigate and all of them are very likely obnoxious in general.
The pitfall everyone mentions is that the clients are the ones requesting, or rather demanding these slide monsters to showcase all their best ideas/events/insert something they are psyched on here and that’s ok. Part of their job is to do what’s best for their business and in many cases the client will assume (wrongly) that throwing as much information at a user as possible is good for business. Our job as designers, developers, project managers and directors is to let them know they are wrong and then back it up with quantifiable evidence. There will always be the clients who either don’t believe you or are looking for that missing “something” in their site and *DING* a lightbulb goes off and an image slider will deliver so much content to the user that our conversions will skyrocket and they’ll sell their used car lot to Google! It’s your job to talk them off that ledge, the truth is that they don’t know any better. That client sells cars, he doesn’t read every A List Apart article or pour over the musings of Brad Frost, that’s what you, as a web professional, are supposed to do.
So what’s your recourse? Should you have a clause in your contract that states “designer will not engage in design, use or implementation of image sliders?” No, obviously not, but maybe you have some choices. Are there design patterns that make an image slider more effective? Yes, there are (I left that part out earlier so we could weed out all the TL;DR crowd.. jerks). It is possible to design a usable and effective slider, but by doing so you’re still going to encounter problems of payload and ultimately usability. Image carousels right now are a little like being shot - there’s no good way for me to shoot you. It’s going to hurt either way, but maybe I just graze you. Maybe you just use three slider images and make sure there is a clear navigation and don’t auto advance all over someone. Make as much as possible CSS based so there are less requests. It’s possible, it’s totally possible to design a better image slider, but it’s still not going to be the best solution.
What can we possibly use to fill that whole space below the header? My immediate answer would be a question: What do you want to use? Cause the possibilities are nearly endless. Do you need to deliver a lot of content like The Verge?, do you need to sell some things like GAP? or do you want to help people send better emails like MailChimp?. A lot of us in the community talk about designing for the user, but put the client first because they have the checkbook. I say let’s all put our money where our collective mouth is and have those hard conversations with clients. The truth is that we all know a carousel is probably not the best answer but it’s up to us as a community to continue to break that design pattern. I know I don’t want to be explaining stats for banner blindness to every other client in 5 years, do you?
1 [Author’s note: I stopped writing here and did about 15 minutes of google searching and comment reading to see if there was a positive note about the use of carousels. I found only anecdotal evidence of their efficacy and it seemed to be rooted in some traditional advertising related logic - the more branding and information, the better]