The carousels of compromise

A couple years ago the Head of User Experience at the library of a large public university was showing off to me their new responsive website1. The design was rough around the edges, but the site as a whole was thoughtfully put together.

“What about that?” I asked, pointing to the carousel on the homepage which spotlighted upcoming events.

It was a small carousel, maybe 5 columns out of 12. It was even placed on the right-hand side. But there it was. At least it didn’t autoforward.

A wireframe sketch, showing the main content areas of the libray's homepage, including "the carousel of compromise".

I said, “You know what’s the consensus about carousels, right?”

He looked at me askance. “Administration,” he said after a moment. “It keeps them happy.”

Good academic library websites are hard to make. Their homepages are so contested that they’re sometimes downright incomprehensible. Not only do they have to support the learning of undergraduate and graduate students in disciplines that are often as varied as human knowledge itself, but also to cater to the information needs of alumni, faculty, visiting researchers and library staff — to say nothing of accommodating the goals of academic leadership, campus administrators and even institutional funders.

And yet the site before me looked clean and felt robust. I would have been proud to show it off. The carousel — the only one on the site — was hardly a blight.

But I couldn’t help but recall what Brad Frost had written just a few months earlier (my emphasis):

From universities to giant retailers, large organizations endure their fair share of politics. And boy does that homepage look like a juicy piece of prime real estate to a roomful of stakeholders. It’s hard to navigate these mini turf wars, so tools like carousels are used as appeasers to keep everyone from beating the shit out of each other.

I smiled and, armed with self-righteous wisdom, said, “That content is not interesting to your users. I bet they don’t even look at it.”

“I bet you’re right,” the Head of UX said.

“You could try and gather data — that’s what they did over at the University of Notre Dame — to see if you could make an argument for dismantling them.”

“And why would I do that?” he said, smiling, and proceeded to explain to me how naive I was.

Their library had secured carte blanche to redesign their website as they thought best. They even got approval to use a shorter version of the school’s top navigation to give them more space. The homepage was designed (after much user testing) to effectively target the needs of their primary constituencies — learners, instructors and researchers.

With one exception.

“You know what’s on this carousel?” he went on. “Announcements about how awesome we are. Events by significant funders. Faculty presentations, art workshops. Most students don’t care about any of that. But everyone else does. You think boiling down the requirements of all those stakeholders to this one carousel was easy?”

The carousel, it turned out, was the resulting compromise of a successful negotiation and not, as I had assumed, a sign of cowardice or incompetence.

In the article I cited earlier, Brad Frost went on to say:

It’s far harder to have an honest content strategy conversation and determine what truly deserves to be on the homepage.

What hadn’t occurred to me is that this kind of conversation can be anchored by a user interface as seemingly problematic as a carousel.

I’ve noticed the pattern of small carousels on many academic library and university websites. (I’m referring here to small carousels containing non-essential content.) And I’m sure they’ve got plenty of smart in-house folks working for them.

So what is going on?

Compromise is not appeasement. It’s about having complicated conversations without staking out the entire homepage as being fair game.

If your goal is to keep the website usable (in the strongest sense of this word), what is the serious alternative? Go ahead and tell the people who funded your library that their event is uninteresting to the main users of that library. Then what?

Reading about online design, my sense is that a lot of the prominent voices are either freelancers or work at agencies. Maybe they can bang on the table and say how it’s going to be. But they won’t stick around after they’ve delivered their uncompromising design to find out how the clients ask the in-house team to “tweak” it.

A big part of the work of in-house teams is developing long-term relationships across the organization. They can’t afford to alienate stakeholders, especially not those that are critical to the organization’s survival.

So they do all they can to keep negotiations going. Even if it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.

Carousels can be — have been — a way of at once enabling and delimiting these negotiations.

Every few months, I have reason to visit the library website the Head of UX showed off to me. And sure enough, that carousel is still there. I have no idea what their internal politics are like. But I’ve seen worse compromises. Maybe this one works for them.

Sometimes the best design decision you can make is the one that keeps folks coming back to the table. Don’t be misled by pixel perfect metaphors. Design is chancy, messy, human work.

  1. To protect the innocent, I’ve written this somewhat fictionalized sketch without proper nouns. ↩︎

Originally published on Digest.

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