The case for the downtrodden Carousel

Posted on July 15, 2014

Image sliders, carousels, [insert “wow”-name] are one of the best examples of internet craze and dismay. They were that thing that every great designer had waiting up her sleeve in 2008 to send clients beaming back to their cars to know their site was going to be incredibly special at whatever cost. They got wild for awhile, becoming clickable, readable, incorporating not just images but calls to action, additional layover elements, keyboard controls, special animations and all other jQuery UI abilities. They took over home pages, and became the latest flash intros (but they’re NOT flash, so it’s cool.) Just like everything else, as soon as it been developed as far as it could go, there was nothing left to do but feel fatigued and encourage the market to move on.

Backing the argument with data this time, the developers who wanted to get in front of the trend backed their fatigue up with a bunch of data and headed to the design office to check in with our friendly designers and begin the process of deconstructing their love affairs with the image carousel. Websites were posted, shared - dedicated to taking down the carousel. After all, they were extraordinarily difficult for the end user to interact with - just check out this click data. Nobody can use a carousel, and therefore it is an old, tired dog. With the love affair now closed squarely on data, the community as a whole was won over by the new normal and websites responded. After all, if your web team isn’t going to give you a carousel, guess what - you’re not going to get a carousel.

Now carousels are quietly being passed back and forth infrequently in the minds of website conceptualizers of all walks of life who think about sites abstractly. They’re still around, but their bubble and bust has wiped them from the use and excitation they used to experience. Sometimes, one will get through design and land on your lap - and you need to kindly pass along this site to the sorry fool who hasn’t seen it yet and try not to be obvious about taking them down a notch in your book with the words in your email. In the Netfish project, this was one of the first bits of conversation over a design that went through handfuls of unplanned revisions. A carousel was present on the home page and I had to be clear with my client about where carousels were in favorability. They didn’t take much convincing. Clearly the reputation of carousels had soaked in beyond the developer/client line already here in Albuquerque or they just needed a little push. But they did have this to add.

“We are not wedded to the idea of the carousel (I personally do not like them), but the ad agency suggested it as a way of catching the eye.”

When you have a trusting relationship with a client who looks to you as an expert, this kind of claim needs to be debunked very carefully, and in a way that can be understood by them. Clearly, this client wasn’t just anyone - they had presented a web design to me that was a confluence of a professional designer and the internal staff. The designer was trying to deliver something very specific with this carousel and if I were to just throw industry chatter at it, it would have gone away, and I would have won. (Yes, this can be a competition sometimes.) But here I had it: an eye-catching design, with stuff that caught the eye. Was that the whole point? To catch the eye? Carousels do catch the eye - any movement does. Carousels just happen to do it within boundaries on a page. The carousel wasn’t demanding clicks - or it didn’t have to at all. In fact, if it was supposed to catch the eye, did catch the eye, but then was pointedly ignored, it may have a different set of strengths altogether.

I came back to them with let’s keep the carousel - we’ll use it to subliminally reinforce the brand. We’ll add slides about quality, convenience, customer service. We’ll put links on them just in case someone clicks, but the idea being that we’re not expecting any. There won’t be any keyboard commands, auto advance, or anything. Just a touch of movement allowing the eye to land on big-fonted words like ‘Sustainable Seafood,” “Chef Testimonials,” “100% Guaranteed,” and “Right to your door.”

I want to point out that I didn’t debunk the claim that carousels catch the eye. Quite the opposite - they do a very good job of it. Any data measuring clicks through a carousel, navigation of a carousel, or conversions originating in a carousel is completely ignoring this. And the carousel is doing its job, in the middle of the home page, passively entertaining visitors who are thinking about shopping there for the first time. Any indecisive person sitting on the home page may be examining the menus (what is this site made of?,) the footer, (who’s behind this thing, anyway?) the design, (is that water picture fixed?) or better yet, checking out the page sizing (is this thing responsive?) the carousel is there reinforcing the brand every several seconds. It’s only found on the home page, and unlike flash intros, it gets out of the way of anyone who is there with an agenda.

In fact, in thinking about how image carousels came into popularity, they were born when there was nearly zero movement at all on web pages, and there was clearly an itch for it. Javascript, which runs most front-end image carousels, was not fully standardized/stabilized/supported until 2009) and even before that time, sites were desperately clamoring for something, anything! that would drop menus, change images. With the release of jQuery in 2006, and other popular libraries like script.aculo.us and mooTools, suddenly designer-developers could add these features and rest assured that they would work most of the time. Images, having been so static, were an immediate target for movement and every time a bigger and better carousel plugin came out, the clamoring for the features could be heard for miles on Twitter. Then it became which would be easiest to implement with the most options. I still use jQuery Cycle 2.

Now the carousel is nearly dead, and it’s like we’re blaming it for our raucous pursuance of its ubiquity, when the only thing left to do is use it properly, whenever that is.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” ? Albert Einstein

This overused quote says it best - if you’re measuring the worthiness of a feature by what it doesn’t do (or by how tired you are of seeing others misuse/overuse it,) you’re not doing it right. Additionally, if you’re riding the big kahuna that the powers that be are making and letting unknown forces send you crashing back to shore, there may be more to examine about the situation than the headcount of other folks also caught up in it.

The case for the downtrodden Carousel Image

Caroline C. Blaker

Welcome, I'm a solo-preneur web professional living in the Land of Enchantment. I blog about things related to personal and professional life. My business specializes in Content Management Systems - ExpressionEngine, Craft CMS, and WordPress — and learning of new-to-me tech like Laravel. I also like writing content like you see here. Please consider hiring me if you’re looking for a developer who is responsive to email and gets it done on-time and in-budget.

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