A Skeptics Guide to Web Design

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently listening to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast. For those unfamiliar with the show, it is a weekly talk show program where stories in the news are looked at with a scientific and critical eye. It isn’t about pushing a hidden agenda or debunking myths, but rather about questioning “conventional” wisdom and trying to gain a deeper understanding of the world around us.

That got me thinking about some of the “conventional” wisdom contained in web design these days and if there are some nuggets of wisdom that aren’t as useful as we might think. As I come across these interesting tidbits of information, I’ll be posting them to our blog. For my first installment I’m going to be tackling something that I’m actually ashamed to say I’ve built into quite a few websites myself.

Carousels / Sliders

A carousel or slider is a large banner image that changes its content after a certain amount of time, when a user clicks an arrow, or both. They are incredibly popular and used all over the internet, even by some major brands such as Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. Surely if some of the most popular websites on the internet are using carousels, they must work, right?

Actually, more than a few studies have shown that carousels do not work as intended and have very low engagement rates, especially for the secondary banners. Banners that auto-rotate are just plain annoying. Why do we keep using them then?

The short answer is that they are a crutch used to avoid making a difficult decision – what is the most important piece of information in this situation? Carousels are a way of appeasing all website stakeholders by saying “everybody/product/message has equal importance”. It’s usually not a surprise to learn that when everything is important, nothing actually is.

To be fair, there are certain, very limited, situations in which a carousel may be appropriate. Typically these are not for marketing messages, announcements or featured items, but for product details, galleries and situations where a user is more inclined to explore.

What can you do instead of having a carousel on your website? First and foremost, prioritize the messaging on your website. Let the most important message have the most prominence on the site and scale other messages down accordingly. Try using a tiled layout similar to what we’ve implemented on Hillberg & Berk to give prioritized weighting to different messages. Your users will be much happier, trust me.

Tell us what you think.