Carousels are a set of rotating slides that display multiple items within the same space on a web page. Organizations often use them to promote new activities, initiatives, programs, and services. When communications teams are juggling multiple requests for promotional space, it’s tempting to use a carousel that can cycle through several promotions and expose a segment of your audience to each.

But…they are not very effective promotional tools. People just don’t click them.

Let’s look at why that is and how you can design content that is more successful at reaching your audience.

“Services should be built to address the needs of users, not the internal constraints or complexities of government. To deliver value to users, teams must understand and prioritize users’ needs.” – Government of Canada Digital Standards

Carousels may meet organizational needs of having content front and center, but users scroll past them because they look like ads.

Believing that your content will be noticed because it is in a carousel is incorrect. The opposite is true.

In 2016, the Digital Transformation Office conducted an eye tracking study. Participants barely looked at more than the bottom corner of the carousel, and they didn’t scan more than the first few words of the caption. The red in the heatmap of the image shows that they consistently read the page title and description before looking further down the page. Based in part on this study, we stopped using carousels on the home page of and other top-level navigation pages.

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Heat map from a carousel eye tracking study

Heat map from an eye tracking study that shows how the eyes moved down the page and overlooked the carousel

We also saw this behaviour when we worked with Global Affairs Canada in 2019 to improve some key travel tasks. Their Traveller’s checklist was prominently featured with an attractive graphic in their carousel at the top of the page. 89% of participants failed to find it. When we removed the carousel and added a text link within the page called Planning your trip, 100% of people successfully followed the link and found the checklist.

Content design tips from our Travel advice and advisories project

Accessibility: carousels can be distracting

In addition to avoiding them because they look like ads, people avoid carousels because they move. That movement can be distracting and sometimes users don’t have time to finish reading the text before the slide changes.

Have you ever tried to read something, and then it moves? Frustrating, isn’t it?

Instead of being subjected to an arbitrary timed process, users should control their own reading.

Accessibility and inclusivity have to be at the forefront of your design. Making content accessible means a wide range of people can use it, including people with physical and cognitive disabilities (for example, reading disorders, attention deficit disorders, memory disorders).

Build in accessibility and inclusivity

A time and place for carousels

While there are good reasons to avoid carousels for promotional purposes, there are times when they can be effective. On a page designed as an image gallery for example, they can work well.

For this reason we’ve left the pattern in the design system, but we’ve updated the guidance for when and how to use it.

Carousels - design pattern

How to do effective promotions

Now, you are probably wondering: “How do I do effective promotions then?”

Start by focusing your approach on user behaviour and outcomes.

Tailor your message

Look at how to tailor your message to the visitor, based on where they are on the site. Make sure promotions are clearly related to the content of the page. Promoting access to a free tax clinic on a page about taxes makes lots of sense. This promotion would be less effective on a page that had nothing to do with taxes.

Consider placement

Even better than placing your promotion on a page related to the topic, is to position it within the page where it makes the most sense. We see a great example of this on the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) page where there’s a promotion for getting your taxes done for free right after the section that explains how you must file your tax return to continue receiving the benefit. People looking at this page are already receptive to advice about getting their CCB payments, so they’re more likely to follow a link that helps them accomplish that task.

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Example of a promotion on the Canada Child Benefit page

The Canada Child Benefit page has a promotion part way down the page, offering the link text: Find out if you can get your taxes done for free.

It’s placed right after the section that explains how you have to file your tax return to continue receiving the benefit.

You can also use the Context-specific features pattern where you know people will be looking for the information or service you want to promote. These promotions should bring people directly where they can accomplish their task.

Context-specific features - design pattern

Think about the task

A promotion that is purely about “giving information” is less effective than one that is framed as a task. “Find out if you can get your taxes done for free” is active. It invites the audience to engage in something that may save them money. If your promotion is really just about informing, consider how you could use the online medium to your advantage by incorporating interactive elements that help people engage with the content.

Test and evaluate

Don’t just publish a beautiful promotion and assume your work is done. If you can do user testing before, or even after publishing, do. If that isn’t practical, be sure to use analytics to see bounce rates, click-throughs, time on page, etc. to evaluate how successful the promotion is. Be prepared to adjust placement, wording and other content to improve success if needed.

Beyond the web

You can do promotions in other channels as well:

  • social media accounts
  • tv
  • radio
  • specialized audience channels

People expect to see promotions in these channels and are therefore more receptive to them.

Make sure the various teams involved in these products work together to create a consistent look and to line up messaging across all channels.

Final word

“Put the user first, provide relevant content that enhances their experiences and results will follow” – Beating Banner Blindness, Infolinks whitepaper is the main channel to guide people to services and information from the Government of Canada.

Promotional messaging cannot get in the way of people trying to accomplish what they set out to do when they come to the site. At best, such forced promotional messaging will be ignored. At worst, it could backfire and have a detrimental effect on your users’ objectives, reducing task success and diminishing trust in your product or service.

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