Slide Rules

I hereby declare this week The Week of The Slider! After seeing Erik Runyon’s very helpful (if not surprising) post about slider interaction statistics and Brad Frost’s fervently thoughtful post about the feature we love to hate, I’ve decided to dredge up my almost-finished-never-published post about same said feature. However, rather than discussing user interaction and statistics, I’m going to throw my thoughts about the Slider Information Design Conundrum into the ring.

First, I will come clean. We’ve implemented our share of homepage sliders here at Bearded. It’s a common homepage convention. And there are times when this strikes me as a reasonable thing to do. For instance, a product with multiple key features of equal weight. Like the iPhone. But lately – at least for me – it’s started to feel like we’re getting a little habitual with our sliders.

In some ways, it’s an easy fix to a complicated problem. On the client side, it can be hard to negotiate a perfect hierarchy for a website’s information. And the more complicated and diverse a site’s content is (most sites don’t have the laser focus of a single product) the harder the task becomes.

Then there are internal opinions and politics. Different departments or individuals will likely think their content is more important, and may push to get it promoted on the site. Personal relationships may factor in – no one wants to let down their co-workers, after all. And let’s face it, it’s easier to just promote four things to a slideshow and largely defer potentially difficult decision-making. Why is that so bad? I didn’t think it was, until I began to feel an itch in the information design part of my brain; a feeling that often signals the arrival of a problem.

As an example, let’s consider a desktop slider layout like the diagram below:


The upper area is a slider that’s packed with three content chunks: 1a, 1b, and 1c. Below the slider are two other pieces of content (marked 2 and 3). The relative importance of these items is assigned by:

  • Placement: The slider is above and more prominent, while the two featured items are below and less prominent
  • Size: The slider is full width and more prominent, while the four featured items are partial width and less prominent. 

Because we’re talking about the slider as a whole unit, this is pretty clear cut. But now let’s consider the temporal aspect of the individual slider items. Only one is ever on the screen at a time – at which point it has hierarchical dominance on the page. Meanwhile the rest of the slider items are hidden completely, and thus have zero prominence on the page. The items take turns being visible every few seconds, and their place in the information hierarchy shifts accordingly. So what our design is saying about slider content is:

  • When a slider item is active, it’s more important than everything else on the page.
  • When a slider item is inactive, it’s completely unimportant.

The problem is that I can’t think of a content scenario when this should be the case. The importance of these items is either all or none, depending on when someone looks at the screen, when they decide to scroll, etc. As an information designer, I find this unsettling.

I’m not sure that this means the homepage slider approach is simply bad. But when making design decisions like this, we should consider how it affects the information hierarchy of the page, and ask ourselves (and our clients) if it is appropriate to the content at hand.

It’s also important to check that we’re not making design decisions that enable our clients to defer making hard content hierarchy choices. If it’s a “let’s get more stuff above the fold” issue, then maybe consider that “below the fold” (wherever that fold may be*) is better than not present entirely.

Hiding content like this adds a fair amount of chance into our information hierarchy. Will users see the first slide? Probably. Will they see the second one? Maybe. The third? Who knows?

Is it possible that all the items in a slider are equally important and need to share the same space (albeit not at the same time)? Yes it is. But is it likely?

*After all, websites are not newspapers. Where the fold is for any given user is dependent on screen size, browser viewport size, display resolution, device, and of course the user’s act of scrolling. It’s hard to ask for “above the fold” when we don’t even know where the fold is.