Why carousels don't work

December 4, 2023 in Product design

One of the most commonly discussed components in web design has to be the carousel. It goes by many names - image rotators, sliders, featured content modules - but that doesn’t lessen the ongoing critique. In my 25 years of experience as a user experience designer, there's hardly been a big project where carousels were considered, dismissed, considered, and dismissed again. I will admit that I’ve designed them in the past, but I now try to steer discussions away from them. Let me explain why.

The situation with carousels

Carousels are often used as a compromise between multiple stakeholders. Everyone wants their message at the top of the screen. As Brad Frost humorously illustrates in his piece "Carousels", they can be a result of organizational clutter with everyone feeling their content is the most important.

INT. MEETING ROOM “I’m very important! I need to be on the homepage!”
“I’m also very important! I need to be on the homepage too!”
“I’m very very important, I need to be on the homepage three!”
“Let’s make a carousel! Everybody wins!”
THE GROUP HIGH FIVES AND CELEBRATES OVER A BLOOMIN’ ONION AT OUTBACK STEAKHOUSE.

This reminded me of a project with the Swedish telecom giant, Telia. Their business, standing on three pillars - mobile, TV, and broadband - faced a dilemma. Each department believed their service deserved the homepage spotlight, resulting in, you guessed it, a carousel.

Problems with carousels

  • User Engagement Issues: Contrary to popular belief, carousels often fail to engage users effectively. Studies show that most users don’t interact with them and important content can easily be missed.

  • Information Overload: Carousels try to cram too much information into a small, time-limited space. This approach can overwhelm users making it hard for them to fully absorb any message.

  • Accessibility and Usability Concerns: Carousels pose significant challenges for users with disabilities by complicating navigation, particularly on mobile devices.

Alternatives to carousels

Instead of relying on carousels, consider these alternatives:

  • Prioritized Messaging: Identify the most important message or product and feature it prominently. Consider what the message is, what the goal of the feature is, and what action you want the user to take.

  • Content Hierarchy: Use a well-thought-out content hierarchy to guide users through your site providing them with a clear path to follow. This is why I often propose to start with a page brief before going into wireframes.

If everything is important, then nothing is

In the world of user experience, if everything is deemed important, then effectively nothing is. Carousels, while seemingly convenient, often compromise the clarity and effectiveness of your website. Prioritizing purposeful clarity and intentional user engagement over flashy features significantly enhances the overall effectiveness of the digital experience.

“Carousels are effective at being able to tell people Marketing/Senior Management that their latest idea is on the home page. Use them to put content that users will ignore on your home page. Or, if you prefer, don’t use them. Ever.”

It’s honest, authentic, and accessible.

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