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Carousels on ecommerce sites are now commonplace, but are they useful for retailers? 

In theory, they offer a chance for sites to put multiple messages in prime postion on homepage, but there are drawbacks. 

I've been looking at the potential problems with carousels, as well as asking ecommerce professionals for their views... 

Usability issues with carousels

They move too quickly

The auto-forwarding of carousels can be a problem, especially if they move too quickly. This means that customers can't actually take in the information.

Also, as this case study from Jakob Nielsen suggests, they also distract users from other elements on the page

Navigation problems

Let's say you see a great jacket, or a particularly enticing offer when you load up the homepage, but then it changes. So how do you get back to the image you wanted to see? 

A common method is the radio button, as used by John Lewis here. It's so subtle that it's easily missed:

Perhaps John Lewis has recognised this problem, as the new beta site (reviewed here by Simon Lilly) has added arrows when you hover over the image: 

Customers aren't paying attention

Maybe it's just me, but unless I see a particularly compelling image or message, I ignore carousels, as I haven't the patience to wait for them to change.

In fact, it's a Catch 22 situation. If they move too quickly, you miss the messages; if they are slower, then customers become impatient waiting for the next one. 

According to Depesh Mandalia, Head of Digital at QualitySolicitors:

The challenge with a landing page, whether a homepage or (sub)category page is getting your key messages across to 100% of your visitors. It's akin to the visual merchandising challenge of a shop-front, with the differentiation being technology. Carousels seem like the best catch-all solution and have a wide adoption throughout however I personally think it is an inefficient use of space with a huge reliance on a consumer 'sticking around' if the first one or two banners do not appeal (assuming you have more than two).  

Key messages receive less attention

Carousels do sometimes seem a way to let various stakeholders each have a piece of homepage real estate, but the result is that three or four messages or promotions each recives less attention than they would without the carousel. 

There is also, as Jakob Nielsen points out, the problem of banner blindness. 

They don't work 

There have been a few studies into the effectiveness of carousels, and the results aren't great. Here, Conversion XL sets out some compelling reasons to ditch them. 

The post references a study by Notre Dame university into its use of carousels. The five slides combined were only clicked on by 1% of site visitors, with the first slide bagging 84% of those clicks.

Doesn't seem worth it for the amount of homepage real estate devoted to them.  

Ecommerce consultant Dan Barker has run various tests on carousels: 

I've set up tracking for quite a few of them. On the couple of occasions where they've gone from 'no carousel' to 'carousel', the carousel got less clicks than the static spot that was there beforehand. Where tracking's been in place, the first slide has always, always got most clicks, even when 'later' slides have more compelling offers/content.

Examples of carousels

House of Fraser

The House of Fraser carousel switches about every five seconds, but since the slides are low on text, customers aren't necessarily missing out on any messaging. 

Debenhams

This one moves quite quickly, every three or four seconds. Not much time to take in the code you need to use for the 20% discount. 

However, it does offer an alternative to the radio button nvaigation, with arrows either side of the sliders. 

Royal Mail

The new Royal Mail website has a carousel, but it comes with plenty of navigation options. The redio buttons, arrows, and a pause button so people can actually read a slide they're interested in. 

 

Topshop

A unique approach from Topshop, while it has a carousel, it doesn't move. Instead, customers need to use the arrows to move between slides. If they want to, that is. 

This certainly avoids the usability issues, and ensures that the main slide will get plenty of attention. 

 

Newegg 

Newegg has a carousel, but it only takes up a small area of the above the fold space. This avoids some of the drawbacks, while numbering the radio buttons gives a clearer indication to customers on how to navigate between slides. 

Should ecommerce sites use them? 

The evidence against them is convincing, and it's interesting that most of the major US ecommerce sites aren't using carousels, while roughly 50% of the top 20 UK retailers are. 

I asked some ecommerce professionals for their views: 

Dan Barker:

They're good but, if you use them badly, they're bad. Lots of the criticisms of them are easy to mitigate in a way that retains the benefits. For example, if you can display them differently to different user groups, that can work well. In general, sites make them move too fast.

Lee Duddell, Founder of Whatusersdo:

Without doubt, users find auto scrolling carousels annoying (at worse) or simply ignore them (at best). There are three primary reasons for this:

  1. Most users suffer from banner blindness with the image heavy scrolling banners simply being ignored, because, in users' minds they resemble adverts and too much effort is required to digest a "frame" before the next one is automatically presented.
  2. Even when a banner "frame" has grabbed a user's attention, they quickly become frustrated when the content they are interested in moves off the page before they've had a chance to click on it.
  3. Nobody sits back and watches banners rotating in a carousel. Or, to be more precise, real users don't do this. The internal stakeholders who signed off the carousel probably did, but that was their task. Real users want to get on with finding content or products, not leaning back and watching pretty images scroll before them.

Practically all of our clients who have implemented auto-scrolling carousels quickly withdraw them after testing them with users.

The (user) jury is still out when it comes to carousels that don't auto-scroll and allow users to control the movement between "frames" and seems to depend more on the type of content. But, auto-scrolling carousels are real "no-no" for site owners.

Depesh Mandalia:

The challenge with a landing page, whether a homepage or (sub)category page is getting your key messages across to 100% of your visitors.

It's akin to the visual merchandising challenge of a shop-front, with the differentiation being technology. Carousels seem like the best catch-all solution and have a wide adoption throughout, but I  think it is an inefficient use of space with a huge reliance on a consumer 'sticking around' if the first one or two banners do not appeal (assuming you have more than two). 

What should replace the carousel?  

Plenty of sites have opted not to use the carousel, preferring static merchandising. Depesh Mandalia believes intelligent merchandising is the best approach:

With the use of clever technologies available on the market we can target single banners to segmented users. Certainly a more tailored approach based on interest for known users (previously visited).

For the new customer, test test test! One focused banner message will drive higher CTRs than a few unfocused banners. Serving 100% of your visitors is near-on impossible without knowing something about them yet there seems a self-persuasion with content managers that more choice is good = more clicks = more sales. It doesn't work that way.

What do you think? Are carousels a good thing? Or a waste of valuable space? Please let us know below...

Beamish Steam gallopers image credit: ralph&dot via Flickr

Graham Charlton

Published 30 January, 2013 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (18)

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Guy Redmond

Guy Redmond, Digital Marketing Engineer at Nestle

I think some of the problem with these is the CTA isn't clear, or in some cases the image is not clickable!
I think the the introduction of a tabbed carousel would help, where the offer/CTA is visible and user can (re)select the image/offer.

over 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Guy Very true, but those with a clear CTA, such as the Debenhams one, don't stay still long enough for people to take action.

over 3 years ago

Guy Redmond

Guy Redmond, Digital Marketing Engineer at Nestle

@Graham,, you think Debenhams is clear?
They would have done better to use the themes for the home page with the categorise listed on a landing page, or make the images clickable with the CTAs as part of the image.
A large image is more likely to be clicked, than the tiny links.
Some testing required...

over 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Well, in comparison with some of the others...

over 3 years ago

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James Doman, Product Marketing Manager, Personalisation Specialist at SmartFocus

In terms of product recommendations in scrollers and carousels, we looked at this a while ago.

We found that a product recommendations in a 3 products by 3 scrolls carousel had a clickthrough rate of only 1.38% and generated 1.6% of the retailer's revenue.

Without a scroller, displaying just 4 products led to a clickthrough rate increase of 374% to 6.54%, and revenue generated from this spot rose to 4.8% too.

More here: http://www.predictiveintent.com/2012/05/do-scrollers-work-for-product-recommendations/

over 3 years ago

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Matt Hill

While reading this article, your "Join as FREE Bronze member" slowly scrolled into view at the bottom of the page and distracted me from reading the rest of the article.

over 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Matt Sorry to spoil your experience. The Bronze member rollup should stay at the bottom of the screen and still allow you to view the article.

over 3 years ago

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Craig Kistler, Director of User Experience at Small Farm Design

In all the testing I have done, home page carousels are completely ineffective.

For one, anything beyond the initial view has a huge decrease in visitor interaction. And two, the chances that the information being displayed in the carousel matches what the visitor is looking for is slim. So in that case the carousel becomes a very large banner that gets ignored. In test after test the first thing the visitor does when coming to a page with a large carousel is scroll right past it and start looking for triggers that will move them forward with their task.

The only exception I found was when testing around a holiday and the carousel spoke specifically to that holiday there was an increase in the amount of clicks a visitor had with the carousel.

over 3 years ago

Albie Attias

Albie Attias, Ecommerce Director at King of Servers Ltd

Small radio buttons are not just fiddly to click, they give no clues whatsoever as to what the next banner might be and it's no surprise most people aren't curious enough to find out. A tabbed carousel at least gives the visitor (and search engine if implemented correctly) an idea about what's hidden away. I'm about to launch a site with a tabbed carousel on the home page so I'll monitor its performance with interest and report back when I have some stats on this.

over 3 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum.co.uk

I think the carousel is the retailers equivalent of what local government websites do: they cover their homepage with 20 or 40 min-boxes each with a different message!

With so many departments in a local authority, all want to get their message in front of users - hence the home page crowded mess! *

Carousels are the same: the old fashioned thinking that if you throw something in front of the users, they will read it!

We live in a search driven world now - we don't browse websites: we search them looking for something specific - and we ignore so much of what's on the pages in front of us, until we've reached some content that does match our interest.

* this is an example of pushing too many messages:

http://www.nottingham.gov.uk/

over 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Looks like no-one has a good word to say about carousels then...

over 3 years ago

dan barker

dan barker, E-Business Consultant at Dan Barker

Just spotted the last comment here.

I like carousels & think they can work really well. You just have to be careful & sensible with implementation.

Most of the comments here simply extrapolate the worst points of badly implemented carousels.

about 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Dan - perhaps we need another piece in defence of carousels / proper uses of carousels piece to balance this out.

about 3 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Morning all,

I think Dan hits the nail on the head with "I like carousels & think they can work really well. You just have to be careful & sensible with implementation."

This discussion reminds me of the QR code argument - so many people say they're pointless and don't work, yet I've seen people use them really well and get results.

The key is implementation. The carousel has to be relevant to the visitor and make it easy for them to digest info to take actions. If the content is obscure and the CTA muted + the auto-scroll stops you from digesting the info, then the usability will impede usage.

However, I've seen some tests done on websites where a carousel has out-performed static banners. I've also seen the reverse!

Which is why testing is critical - don't assume, run tests and see if carousels can add value.

What's interesting is how you can customise the carousel using personalistion tools based on visitor profiles/behaviour. You can't make 1 carousel relevant to all visitors but you can segment and provide tailored carousel content.

The ConversionXL article is definitely worth reading.

Thanks
james

about 3 years ago

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Will Wynne, Chief Executive at Arena Flowers

We A/B tested ours a while ago. Resounding loser vs a fixed hero box panel. Carousel...DITCHED. Goodnight.

about 3 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Will,

Out of interest, what did you test?

Did you test the content and CTA of the carousel as well as just carousel vs. hero panel?

In my experience, the issue with carousels is often the dulled impact of generic messaging.

Would be interesting to know how you structured the test and how significant the difference was, if you're able to share?

Thanks, James

about 3 years ago

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Will Wynne, Chief Executive at Arena Flowers

Hi James,

We had a carousel with two strong panels (offer, solid CTA etc etc).
Tested against both the options alone.

The alone options (ie not on carousel) both beat the carousel (we used optimizely and so tracked interaction, % to hit page one of checkout, ecommerce conversion rate for placed orders, order number and actual revenue).

Ultimately, we mostly care about revenue and average order...the one we least care about is engagement as that does not necessarily turn into cash in the bank.

Hope that helps.

about 3 years ago

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Martin Sansom, Head of Design at Sparkstone Creative

This is a great article and backs up our reasoning when creating the new site for Macculloch & Wallis. - https://www.macculloch-wallis.co.uk/

...and your final comments about using user profiling to created targeted homepages is exactly what we are working on for the next update. (i.e. our CMS allows admins to serve up different page content or layouts depending on a visitor's previous browsing history - saved in their cookies/account history)

In the example of Macculloch & Wallis the default homepage has Threads as the largest section, but if a visitor has previously bought a lot of buttons, then these could be displayed in the large homepage slot instead.

almost 1 year ago

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