Pointless carousels can burn in hell

A little challenge I set myself when designing a site is the “Don’t use a pointless carousel of images on the front page” game.

If I can design a site that is useful to the user across all platforms, conveys the message of the site quickly, converts the user to the purpose of the site easily and doesn’t rely on a constantly changing section of site to fit as much information into already crowded screen real-estate, then I Win. 10 points to Gryffindor and all that.

I don’t always manage this, and the plain reality of carousels is that sometimes they are very useful indeed. But that doesn’t stop me trying other approaches first.

A while ago I was building a small, single purpose site that did one job very well. The copy for the site was short, succinct and to the point. On coming up with a layout, the clients and I were exploring options to give the page a bit more ‘pop’. The consensus was that a carousel was the best thing to use.

The first question is “Why”? The second is "What should appear in there?

To slap on a rotating image carousel of laughing women eating salad or a racially diverse collection of directors smiling around a boardroom table would do a disservice to a product specifically designed to work without frills.

This is something that pretty much all websites must go through – the fear of perceived lack of content or the struggle to organise content into a respectable hierarchy, usually followed by a panicked attempt to “fluff up” the content a bit.

Maybe we should have a carousel with each panel sliding in explaining some facet of the product that had not yet been considered by the user? To do the job, in fact, that a single bullet point list could do in a second?

Maybe we should use carousels as an interesting way to direct users to other parts of the site that they hadn’t considered before? Yes… a sliding interactive gallery of “Hey guyse we got us some case studies” or “lol! contact us!”.

While this approach might work for a while; your dark corner of the site has a tiny torchbeam of recognition shone into its crevice, but what about when you change the carousel to point somewhere else? Are you assuming that all that crazy traffic will somehow be retained? If you’re relying on a carousel to direct users around your site, you’ve bigger problems than what to put on your front page – SEO, IA and frankly, the general usability of the site is brought into question.

If we entertain the carousel notion for a little longer, more questions arise – how should this function without javascript enabled? It is to be an infinite carousel or to scroll back to the beginning? If it’s a combination of text and images, is the text separate from the images? Is each panel to be distinct and unique with it’s own ‘feel’? How would one manage the styling of these special little snowflakes? Is it possible to skip panels, is it possible to pause? How do touch screen interfaces work with it? How do skinny viewports interact with it – and is it different to the full-fat equivalents? Scroll left-to-right, top-to-bottom, fade in-out?

There’s no such thing as “Just” using a carousel. Unfortunately that’s how they’re treated – a graphical flourish that somehow is meant to bring extra gravitas to a design without much thought as to what they’re actually meant to do.

To me, carousels are heading on a course that is sending them very close to the same school-of-design-dustbin in which Comic Sans and Flash splash-screens reside. Needless overuse eventually will make it a reviled option amongst designers and stop people using them when they are a good idea.

(Update 24th Jan) Required reading from far smarter folk