Do carousels matter?

Human intuition can still outperform machine analytics and statistics when it comes to understanding the indirect benefits that design choices create and that are impossible to measure in isolation.

For those who are thinking along the lines of a fairground ride, a carousel on a web site is a horizontal scrolling display of items. It’s a way of presenting a list of content, usually with visual backdrops, in less space. Each item scrolls into view, one at a time. Usually automatically with the option to override.

The general consensus from experienced web designers is that carousels are a waste of space and shouldn’t be used. And there evidence to back up their sentiment:

  • In a web survey of 3 million site visitors, only 1% clicked through a carousel item
  • Of those who did click (the 1%), 89% clicked the first item in the carousel

If you were hoping for high clicks from your carousel, you will likely be disappointed.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use one.

The physical equivalent of a carousel is the shop window. How do you decide what to put in a shop window display? You can’t fit all the contents of the shop in one window. So it tends to focus on a current promotion or new content people may not know about. Some shops fill their windows with posters and have standard layouts. Others create elaborate themed displays that change with the seasons

How many visitors to a shop walk through the door solely because of what they have just seen in the shop window display? I don’t have the statistics. Let’s guess it’s around 1%.

So should shops not bother with window displays? Of course not. Apart from a certain customer segment within a certain industry, shops without window displays actively deter people from entering. It’s not a good strategy if you want to sell stuff.

Back in the virtual world of the web, does your site need a carousel? No.

Should you use one anyway?  It depends on what would be on the page instead.

If you have a web site that includes highly visual content, preferably your own creations such as artwork or photography, a carousel can be a lovely showcase regardless of whether anyone clicks on it or not.

There are consequences to consider before using carousels such as accessiblity compliance. Screen readers can struggle with carousels. You shouldn’t have anything in a carousel that can’t be easily accessed via normal navigation and content. If that’s a problem, don’t use a carousel. Perfomance can also be a problem – carousels tend to increase the amount of time it takes to display the page.

Only consider a carousel if you think it will visually enhance the appearance of your web home page without negative consequences  and whether that enhancement may lead to better engagement directly or indirectly.

I mostly dislike the use of carousels on intranets and portals. They rarely deliver anything of value other than satisfying somebody who is passionate about high-visual displays for broadcast communications.

But all of the above are guidelines. There are no rules and sack any web designer who tells you otherwise. It’s hard to evaluate the effectiveness of a carousel without considering what other interactions it has influenced, positively or negatively. Has it put somebody off visiting the site – did they close the browser window in frustration because it took too long for the background image to load. Did they spot something of interest but then choose to search for a similar item. Site analytics will not record these behaviours. Sometimes a bit of design creativity and intuition trumps data-driven decisions.


Featured image: ‘Coney Island Carousel’ kindly shared on Flickr by drpavloff

This article was originally published at