I’ve heard chatter lately about the evil of sliders. No, not the delicious mini-sandwich or the 90s TV show with Jerry O’Connell. But the prominent, slideshow-like banners atop many e-commerce and business websites. In the past year, I’ve noticed the size of image sliders increase too. Sometimes the image slider engulfs the whole website. Whatever the size, this device is a popular way to show several important messages on the homepage at once.

But there are a few who decry the poor slider. They call it a fad, an eye-sore and a conversion rate killer. Peep Laja (pronounced Pep Laya) of ConversionXL.com wrote a post in September that listed damning anecdotes from website testers and experts. The gist being that you’re a fool to use such a confusing and painful design element. I’d like to stand up for image sliders everywhere and say, “Well, it depends.”

Peep’s argument focuses on the use of sliders on e-commerce websites to display promotions and feature several products at once. The most convincing reason not to use a slider on e-commerce pages is the phenomenon of banner blindness. It’s the reason why everyone sees billboards on the roadside, but few remember them. It’s also partly why MySpace sucked and never made any money. Too many repetitive messages at once and web visitors tune out the distraction so they can focus on their real business of information seeking.

For e-commerce sites, I totally agree with Peep. It’s better to send one strong message than speed through five unrelated ones. Sometimes one great static image is all your web visitors need.

However, I think sliding image features are not the killers suggested by Peep’s anecdotes. I think they’re a good tactic that requires excellent execution and careful implementation. Poor design and pushy animation will always turn people off. If you read the comments of the ConversionXL article, there’s a great discussion about best practices for using sliders the right way.

For small business websites, an image slider can be a good way to introduce your business to first time visitors. Rather than promoting a slew of products, the images should be invitations to learn more. Experienced visitors believe they already know your website navigation and they are likely to ignore the slider completely. So don’t rely on it to communicate vital information. Instead, offer a friendly face, a phone number or a simple phrase to give first timers a place to start.

Three guidelines to follow if you want to use a homepage image slider:

  • Turn off automatic rotation and make it easy for users to browse the images.
  • Use consistent design elements on every image. Put the call-to-action in the same place on each if possible.
  • Make the most important message the first image.

Disagree? Have questions about web design? Express your thoughts and design preferences in the comments.