Under The Microscope

Usability Nightmare: Web Slideshows



Years of developing Mac software led me to interest in and heightened sensitivity about design. The way that users interact with software and computers is fascinating, and the more attention we as developers pay to it, the less our users struggle. Rogue Amoeba’s own products certainly aren’t perfect, but we aim for quality design. Looking around the world, I’m often struck by both incredibly bad design, and worse, a lack of any real design at all. This is the first post in an occasional series that will examine some terrible design, a series dubbed Usability Nightmares.

Usability Nightmare: Web Slideshows

Web slideshows can be found throughout the web. For the most part, they’re innocuous, simply presenting images and allowing viewers to click to load the next image. However, there’s one type of web slideshow that’s just terrible, and that’s the automated web slideshow.

As the name implies, automated web slideshows are those which automatically load the next image after a short interval. This slideshow on Forbes.com is automated, for example. It allows you to stop the slideshow, and slow it down or speed it up.

In a word, this is horrific. Let’s assume it takes 15 seconds to view and read an individual slide. With a manual slideshow, you view a slide and then click Next to manually advance. So at best, at best, the automated slideshow times this just right, and loads a new slide every 15 seconds. Just as you’ve finished, it advances to the next slide. That’s a nice thought, but it’s saved you precisely one mouse click per item. This isn’t exactly mind-blowing.

The much more likely scenario is that the timing is off, and it takes you less or more time to view a slide than you’re given. If it’s too slow, if it takes you 15 seconds to view a slide and the slide advances every 20 seconds, then you’ve effectively got a manual slideshow. You finish a slide and click Next, just as you would with a manual slideshow. You might never even know the slideshow is automated.

Far worse is if the slideshow is too fast, if it loads a new slide every 10 seconds. This is immensely frustrating. When it happens, the slide advances too quickly, and you must click Back, then refocus. If you’re lucky, you finish in time now, and click Next to advance. Two clicks that should have been just one, along with a focus shift that needn’t have occurred.

Near-Useless User Control

At some point, someone realized that different users needed different amounts of time to view a slide. The right answer to this would have been to drop the whole idea of automating the web slideshow. Instead, the user was given some control. They could pause the slideshow, and speed it up or slow it down. Pausing the slideshow is effectively turning it into a manual slideshow, though some (including Forbes’) will unpause after each advancement of the slide, forcing slower viewers to pause each time.

Speed controls, however, are useless, particularly those seen at Forbes. If the slide is advancing too slowly, you’ll increment faster one or more times. Without knowing how much faster this makes things1, you don’t know where you need to go. Perhaps you’ll have made things too fast, and then need to back up, and slow things down, wasting many clicks. Perhaps it will still be too slow, and you’ll need to click Faster more. Best case, again, you hit on just the right time and save one mouse click per item. Worst case, you’re clicking and refocusing all over the place, trying to get that right speed.


In design, whether on the web, on the Mac, or anywhere else, less tends to be more. When the iPod was first introduced, it was often criticized for lacking features such as an AM/FM receiver or wireless2. In short order, the iPod came to dominate the market, and still does to this day. This domination is due in no small part to that very simplicity critics derided.

With automated slideshows, we see the converse: More Is Less. The ideal test case for automated slideshows just barely beats the standard case, necessitating a mere one fewer click per item. Meanwhile the automation actively makes the much more likely scenarios worse. When that happens, it’s time to pack it in. Users are perfectly capable of advancing slides themselves, and doing so means your web slideshow will work no matter the users’ reading speed. Automated slideshows may have seemed like a good idea, but using them in practice makes it clear just how needless they is. Remember: Less Is More.

1. Hell, even if a time increment was given, it would still wretched. Humans aren’t very good with granularities of just a few seconds, particularly when it comes to knowing how long it takes to read or view content.

2. CmdrTaco’s 8-word take on the initial iPod (“No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.”) gets funnier every year. Even now, when the Touch has wifi, it doesn’t do the wireless syncing he was looking for back in 2002.

9 Responses to “Usability Nightmare: Web Slideshows”

  1. Scott Atkinson says:

    Paul –

    I’m a usability obsessive too, and agree with you in principle. However, I want to cut out a large exception – a favorite application of mine is SoundSlides, which is used, as the name suggests, to combine audio and still pictures.

    It’s aimed at journalists, enabling them to put together stories without having to muck about in Flash.

    A well-done SoundSlides treats you like a passenger – someone else is controlling the pace for the purpose of telling a story in a particular way, with a particular rhythm.

    Slideshows done for that purpose are closer, it seems to me, to movies. You have to let the author run it, elsewise you don’t get his/her take – you just get the component parts.

    Scott Atkinson
    Watertown NY

  2. Paul Kafasis says:

    Do you have an example of one? Do you generally have text on these? If not, it’s much less of an issue.

    Just as you say, that sounds much more like a movie than a slideshow. That requires the creator to take some responsibility for “directing”, but if they fail, it’s on them, not the technology.

  3. Scott Atkinson says:

    Paul –

    I grabbed one more or less at random off the SoundSlides site.


    You’re right – they tend to not use much text, other than inter-titles, although I have seen a few that used text creatively.


    btw – I sent a note to support thanking you for giving away Pulsar to users of your other products, but let me say it here directly – thanks. I’m a huge fan of Rogue Amoeba’s stuff.

  4. Ryan Ballantyne says:

    This isn’t just a problem with web slideshows. The first thing I do whenever I start a QuickLook slideshow is press pause.

    Automated slideshows only make sense when showing a series of slides to a large group of people, and then only if you don’t want to comment on them (think of the lecturer who clicks to advance slides, explaining each one, which sounds a lot like Scott’s Soundslides).

  5. Claire says:

    Another reason automated slide shows suck is that they assume that the person creating the slide deck knows what they’re doing, and has a reasonable amount of (i.e., not much) information on each slide, and that the density of each slide is roughly the same. In practice, most slide shows feature huge amounts of badly formatted text on at least some slides (not to mention the odd complex graph or diagram), which means that the amount of time needed to understand each slide can vary widely.

    As Scott mentions, slide shows that include narration are a different story. For example, Larry Lessig’s 2006 LinuxWorld conference keynote, Free Culture: What we need from you, is presented as a video. (Lessig also has a number of other videos of talks available using this style of presentation on his site.)

  6. Paul Kafasis says:

    Scott: Interesting. I’m not sure that particular one is an improvement over just the pictures, but it’s certainly not problematic as others are.

    As for Pulsar, enjoy, and tell your friends. Enemies too!

    Ryan: Why use a slideshow at all? Select multiple files and hit spacebar, then just use the right/left arrows. Or just hit one, then up and down. But indeed, pretty much any automated slideshow is troublesome.

    Claire: I think that (huge amounts of badly formatted text) is a problem with PowerPoint presentations too, just about anything where one person controls the “playback” rate.

  7. Scott Atkinson says:

    Paul –

    You’re right. This is a good, though not great, example.

    One point: while I liken this to movies, it’s not – it’s its own little niche medium, somewhere between radio and comic books in how it works.

    btw – For anyone interested in visual storytelling, I recommend – alongside Tuft’s books, Scott McCloud’s ‘Understanding Comics.’

  8. Ryan Ballantyne says:

    “Ryan: Why use a slideshow at all? Select multiple files and hit spacebar, then just use the right/left arrows. Or just hit one, then up and down. But indeed, pretty much any automated slideshow is troublesome.”

    Because I like the full screen functionality, and I suppose that to someone at Apple, full screen == slideshow, which they also equate with auto-advance. Whenever you hit the “full screen” button, the OS helpfully pushes the “play” button for you. This is one example where Apple got it wrong *because* they sweated the details.

  9. Steve Witham says:

    Paul, thanks for pointing out the standardization of this bad idea.


    Being in a slideshow on Play is like the feeling of having cruise control on and encountering traffic or tricky turns. Yikes, Duh! Um!–tap the break! All of a sudden the car, instead of being an expression of your will, is an independent heedless projectile with you as passenger. Automated slideshows drop you into that situation unasked. (Except, okay, the feeling in your guts that you’re about to physically collide with something is an illusion in this case.)

    Non-automated slideshows on the web are often differently awkward: individual pages with buttons (that you often have to scroll to reach) for back, up and next that are just links to pages, so you pile up a list of pages in your browser’s Back history. And of course it doesn’t start fetching the next page until you hit Next.

    “This is one example where Apple got it wrong *because* they sweated the details.” This had me unsure for a second, but, No. Microsoft Word, for instance, has all sorts of automated features that required thoughtfulness and effort to add–but happen to be wrong. So, it must be that “sweating the details” means sweating until the bad ideas have left your system. Apple failed to sweat that automated play button out.

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