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To carousel or not to carousel?

Author's avatar By Expert commentator 09 Oct, 2012
Essential Essential topic

Best practices in carousel design for effective web marketing

Carousels are an extremely popular element on home pages, intended to display a variety of content in an aesthetically pleasing way. Since I’m based in Australia, they’re more often called “Sliders”, others call them “rotating banners”. The inclusion of a carousel is probably one of the most common requests I get from clients during design revisions:

“Can we put a carousel there?”

Sure, why not you may say, they look great right? With the gentle animations and dreamy transitions, who wouldn’t want to sit there and admire it. But more often than not I think that carousels are wasted real estate, done poorly, and highly unusable.

While carousels are still a very popular tool, I’m actually noticing a decline in their use on larger sites who are often leaders in modern design/layout techniques. Still, the trend decline will take a while to hit the majority of website owners – and so in this post I aim to answer the question: To carousel, or not to carousel?

To begin with, I think it’s important to clarify the purpose of a content slider – which will help you decide if it’s right for your design or not. I consider there to be three main types of carousels (by type, I mean their purpose): Content, Information and Navigation.

1. Content carousels

The trend started here, most commonly seen on magazine style website or blogs. They’re often used to showcase some featured or most recent posts, and are a great way to help the user to consume content.

Content carousels are quite often very graphical, they’re attention grabbers. They’re really useful for putting the content we want the user to focus on front and center to get maximum attention.

However content carousels are exactly that – content! Fresh, consumable, content. This does NOT include your About or Services page… A content carousel should feature fresh content, and update regularly so that return visitors know it will provide them with the latest content to read.

2.  Information carousels

Information carousels showing brand and product information have been a manifestation of content carousels; people started repurposing the technology to help users consume a different kind of content – product/service information.

This is where most of my clients fit in, they think it will be “cool” to have a carousel that moves and flashes and gets attention. But they have no idea what purpose it would fill, so they just chuck random bits of information in there. Here’s an About slide, then a slide on Service A, then another on Service B.

Information carousels should really tell a story, flow on from one to another – not jump between subjects. While the trend here is subsiding, they were often commonly (well) used on websites about a single product (such as software). Each one would showcase one of the features/benefits of the product, explain it in detail, then move on to the next. However they’re all tied to the one subject: Why would you want to buy this product?.

3. Navigation carousels

Navigation carousels are another manifestation that deserve their own classification. Their purpose is to help people NAVIGATE your website, not primarily to showcase content.

It should never dominate too much real estate, again their primary purpose is to help people GET to the right content – not to give them the content. The example given here is from the Copywritematters website, and is used to segment her visitors by what sort of service they’re looking to use. The key word there being: segment.

We use a navigation carousel to segment the visitors on our home page to the content they’re trying to get to. This doesn’t include your about page! We don’t segment visitors to secondary content, we segment them into our conversion funnels.

How to get it right?

First and foremost you need to identify the type of carousel you're planning on having, and be 100% clear on the objective.

“I want one because they look cool” is not an objective, aesthetics alone don’t make a great website. If you don’t use the carousel properly, you’re just wasting extremely valuable real estate on content that your visitors don’t want to see. Or worse yet, just causing your visitors to bounce.

While About pages are extremely important, I’m afraid they don’t belong in any sort of carousel – so you can forget that. Remember that each type has a distinct purpose:

  • Content provides fresh content for visitors to consume
  • Information tells a story, all slides are linked to one subject
  • Navigation segments your visitors, getting them into your conversion funnels

What do you think about carousels? They can certainly create strong feelings as this excellent post about carousel design from Conversion XL urging designers and marketers to "Ignore the Fad" shows. Tim Ash of Site Tuners says:

"Rotating banners are absolutely evil and should be removed immediately".

While Chris Goward of Wider Funnel says:

"We have tested rotating offers many times and have found it to be a poor way of presenting home page content".

What do you think? Are carousels an essenial tool for making the most of front-page real-estate or to be avoid at all costs?

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