I wrote a post on the use of carousels on ecommerce sites earlier this year, and the general consensus was negative towards them, with some feeling that such space could be put to better use. 

However, is this just because many carousels haven’t been implemented properly?

In his latest Alertbox post, Jakob Nielsen looks at how to make them more effective. Here are some of his suggestions, and examples of good implementation from ecommerce sites. 

What are carousels? 

Here’s a few examples. On Debenhams, the carousel takes up much of the space above the fold: 

Here’s another from Curry’s: 

Pros and cons of carousels

Pros

  • Carousels enable the same piece of homepage real estate to display different content, thus satisfying the demands of different departments and stakeholders within the business. 
  • Because more is shown above the fold, there’s more chance of customers seeing it. 
  • It allows sites, especially department stores, to cover all bases so that customers may see a promotion or product that appeals to them. 

Cons

  • Navigation problems. Some navigation is so subtle that customers can’t find their way back to the part of the carousel that appealed to them.
  • Key promotions receive less attention. Three or four messages or promotions each receives less attention than they would without the carousel. 
  • They often don’t work. There have been studies into the effectiveness of carousels, and the results aren’t great. Here, Conversion XL sets out some reasons to ditch them. 
  • They move too quickly. Auto-forwarding of carousels can be a problem, especially if they move too quickly (check Boots’ version). This means that customers can’t actually take in the information.

Can carousels be improved? 

The answer, according to ecommerce consultant Dan Barker, is yes, if care is taken over usability and targeting:

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.

So, some of the drawbacks are due to carousels being implemented incorrectly, not necessarily because the whole concept is flawed.  

Nielsen is sceptical about them, and does suggest that hero shots may be more effective for some sites. He does provide some tips for improving carousels, “if you decide the carousel is your superman after all”.

Tips for improving carousel UX

Use fewer slides within the carousel

Neilsen recommends five slides or fewer, to more it more likely that the content will be seen.

This is still quite a lot though, and I do wonder whether using just two or three, as Debenhams does, may be more effective. It’s certainly worth testing. 

Clear text and images

If you’re going to display promotions in carousels, images and text should be easy to digest as they move from one slide to another. 

Here on Selfridges, the image is clear and the calls to action simple: 

Provide navigation cues

Makes sure customers know how many slides there are, and where they are in the ‘progression’. This helps people to control the carousel, and to skip back to a slide that piqued their interest. 

Here, the radio buttons and arrows on TopShop indicate both of these things, and allow customers to navigate:

However, Nielsen does recommend that navigation controls appear inside the carousel, so they are not lost below the fold. 

By this measure, Schuh provides a better example. The arrows indicate navigation, while the labels at the bottom, within the carousel, allows users to go straight to the slide they want to see. 

Slow it down

A fast moving carousel makes it harder for customers to absorb the images and information presented in each slide, and thus causes frustration. 

The Ben Sherman site has just two slides, but they move way too quickly.

Allows users to pause

Boots has a particularly fast-moving carousel, but it does get some things right. The navigation is clear, and it has a pause button. 

boots carousel

In summary

If you’re going to use carousels, then at least ensure that you address the potential drawbacks and test to make them as user-friendly as possible. 

Also, be aware that many customers are only going to see one or two slides. And, as studies have shown, the first slide is always more likely to get the clicks, so optimise accordingly. 

I’d also recommend trying a hero shot instead, and comparing this to the carousel for effectiveness. It may be that that the former works better. 

Do you use carousels on your ecommerce site? Have they worked for you? Have you tested alternatives? Please let me know below…