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Image Carousels: Getting Control of the Merry-Go-Round

The image carousel, be it automatic or manually presented, is a popular choice in homepage web design.   We all have our preferences when we visit a site, what we like or hate, but what do the experts and their research say about the image carousel’s effect on the user’s experience?

Purpose of Image Carousels

First, let’s recognize why carousels are such a popular choice.  Any determination of home page content is a balancing act between the needs of the user and the goals of the site owner or company.  It just so happens that image carousels are the “yes-men” of web design.  In a confined space, they allow you to do three things:

  • Access a variety of content
  • Spotlight how innovative the site or the company are
  • Meet the needs/demands of stakeholders without the having to have the tough discussions about what content really should be featured on a home page.

What the Research Says…

The short and sweet of it is that image carousels often:

  • Get ignored. Banner blindness is alive and well and living on your homepage.  James Royal-Lawson discusses how carousels often are not noticed because they look like ads to users Exit icon. When you are looking at a site in the commercial or media arena, what elements of the screen change?  Probably, and predominantly the ads.  What were the last three ads you saw? Exactly! 
  • Aren’t as engaging as you’d think. You may have a very high percentage of your users clicking on or reading your first image, those click-throughs diminish markedly with each succeeding image. Eric Runyon found through his analysis of Notre Dame University websites Exit icon  that “the first feature averaged 40%. The click-through percentage for subsequent features steadily declined for each feature starting with 18% for the second slot down to 11% for the last.”
  • Are distracting.  You run the risk of having the visitor spend more time discovering how to control your carousel than actually reading what it says. They introduce an unnecessary level of complexity to the user interface.
  • Cause challenges for people with disabilities or low levels of literacy.  According to the Nielsen Norman Group, auto-rotating carousels can have usability problems  Exit icon  for visitors with languageand accessibility challenges. The speed of the change can be a challenge for visitors whose motor control prevents quick action.  Visitors with lower literacy levels or who are non-native speakers might have difficulty reading the text before it has been replaced.
  • Frustrate users because they lose control of the interface.  Let us not discount the ire of a frustrated user who has no control over their field of view as they try to complete the task for which they came to your site.

Recommendations for Improving Carousel Usage

But let’s assume for a moment that carousels are here to stay.  Ultimately, if you can’t beat them, then at least take back some control by grabbing for the brass ring on your trip around the merry-go-round. So, what can be done to make them more effective, and perhaps less of a hindrance for your site?

  • A manual advance is a better option than an automatic one
  • Keep the number of features to a maximum of 3-4, since it appears that as the number of features increases, the click-throughs on sub-features decreases dramatically
  • The presented items should not only be compelling to the user but also in line with users Top Tasks for the site and
  • Make carousel navigation intuitive and included within the carousel frame, rather than beside or below
  • Suggest more content to users to reinforce “click-ability”
  • Consider carousel items cycling, so that the open image randomizes when the homepage is opened

No one likes telling a client no, but perhaps a “no but” conversation might be in order when your client starts to discuss their idea for a 10 image automatically cycling carousel on their homepage, or something close to that.