With every new technology that appears on the web, clever designers and engineers always find ways to hack it into something that will get attention, change the way we interact with technology, or sell products and services. It’s that last bit that tends to be the most frustrating. After 15 years of popular internet usage one might think we’ve learned this lesson by now, but today we’re still sacrificing good design for the latest shiny object.

The Bad Old Days

In the beginning, marketers jumped on board the web in general. A presence was all that was really needed, and eventually their sites turned into interactive brochures. But they were often hard to use, experimenting with overly metaphorical navigation and frames. And they looked terrible. If anyone needs a good reminder on how this worked, check out the original Space Jam website.

Next came Flash, which offered a deeper control of interactive elements, but also gave birth to horrifying intros like this Polish toy site, Hurtownia Kontakt. Web marketers were thrilled to be able to present a little movie (with sound!) for their clients to watch, which promoted all the amazing features of the product or service we were surely going to buy. Users inevitably just skipped by them (or worse, backed out of the site altogether) and Flash’s performance grew increasingly processor-intensive.

Today, we have JavaScript frameworks like jQuery and more, and the shininess of one particular trick is just too much for a marketer to resist: the content slider. Content sliders are everywhere.

Content Sliders 101

For those of you who don’t know what a content slider is, I’ll describe a typical implementation. (You can also try the four links above to see what I’m talking about.) Imagine a large banner across the top of the content, with text and photos describing a new product. After five seconds, the banner slides off to the left and is replaced by a new banner; this one has information about a deal, like free shipping. After five seconds, that banner slides off to the left and is maybe replaced by a third banner. There might be left and right buttons, or there might be dots or thumbnails that allow the user to bring a banner back to the forefront. There might also be play and pause buttons to give more control.

Here’s why marketers love content sliders:

  • They’re able to “fit” more content on the front page, “above the scroll”.

  • They’re able to animate the slider automatically, so that a user will see more features, news, or deals.

  • A slick animation is flashy and eye-catching and makes the site feel modern and impressive.

Here is the reality:

It’s time to give up on content sliders.

Content sliders are a usability nightmare. There is nothing worse than abruptly hiding content from your users. I do quite a bit of casual reading, but I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a fast reader. Nearly every content slider I’ve come across has not given me enough time to read the text and absorb the imagery. I’ll be in the middle of a sentence and suddenly that content is just gone.

The problem compounds the longer the slideshow goes. Banner after banner, flashing something before my eyes, then stealing it away before I can fully process what I’ve seen.

Furthermore, once I’ve conquered this obstacle, the rest of the content on the page becomes more challenging to read, because there’s a constantly shifting block moving back and forth at the top of my vision, distracting me at regular intervals. It’s like a faucet dripping into a plastic bucket when you’re trying to get to sleep.

A lot of these sliders have a pause button, and while that helps, it’s just putting a band-aid on a larger problem. Flash intros have skip buttons, music players have mute buttons, and videos have pause buttons, and users click them. By god do they click them. They even write custom scripts and browser add-ons to disable them automatically. Surely y’all still remember MySpace.

People hate losing control over their computers. It’s always better to give the user control over their environment by default. “I am at home. Let’s play this video.” “I am at work and my speakers are turned on. I will choose to play this game discretely and leave the sound effects off.”

Speaking of user control, if JavaScript is disabled, and—best case scenario—the site is designed to degrade gracefully, you’ll have an obnoxious stack of promotional content. Worst case scenario? None of your slider content will show up at all.

Finally, according to this classic Nielsen post, users will actually read very little of your web page. They’re using their nose and following the scent of your links so quickly that any access to information hidden behind initial content quickly drops off so as to be meaningless. For these users, the content may as well not exist. My guess: anything past two slides never sees the light of day.

Conquering The Urge To Slide

Here’s the thing: you don’t even need content sliders. You can do a better job designing without them.

Your job as an interactive designer and usability specialist is to guide users to the content they need. Figure out where they’re most likely to go, or where you most want them to go, and make that your primary focus. Everything else is less important and should have its own appropriate place on the page where it can be seen, read and studied at the user’s own pace. Break it down, spread it out, and guide their eyes.

And as an added bonus, whether JavaScript is on or off, non-sliding content will act predictably on more devices.

As designers, it’s time for us to take the web back from the whims of those who insist on using content sliders. They’re an ineffective cheat and a dead end, and the web will be a more vibrant and usable place without them.