Recently, a client asked me my opinion on tickers. My response was, "They're great for the stock market, and bad for Web pages." A quick little Web search on usability expert Jakob Nielsen's Web site,, found this quote, from his commentary on Sun's Web site redesign, circa 1997:
Almost all users disliked the scrolling tickers (marquees) in some of the prototypes. Users complained that they were hard to read and time-consuming to interpret. One user kept missing the beginning of the text and thus had difficulty understanding what the message was about. One user said that he tended to ignore such text with the explanation that "I have never seen any information in crawling text that had any interest to me." One more indication that users can see through gimmicks and that they have an explicit understanding of Web design and what they like and don't like on the Web. (Usability Testing of Advanced Homepage Concepts)
My sentiments exactly. A ticker on a Web page is like a skywriter on a beach — when you're just about to walk back to your car. In other words, odds are you're not catching the full text, part of it may already be faded out, and you're not going to wait around for the rest of it to appear.
Tickers indeed are very useful for this, and for sites such as the BBC website homepages which are guaranteed to have thousands of visitors who often revisit the site, they may well help those users quickly see what new features and happenings have taken place since their last visit. But what about the downsides?
1. Distracting users from key content
Have you ever been reading web page content when suddenly, something changes in the corner of your eye, and you look to see what's happened? After realising that it's just the ticker/animated .gif/annoying Flash advert, you go back to reading the content. Except you can't find where you left off, and have to spend a few moments just trying to get back to the last sentence you read, and oh look, what just moved up at the top of the page?
Any content that moves on a page is going to cause some kind of distraction for visitors who are trying to read any length of content on a page. If a webpage is full of short chunks (such as the BBC home pages) this isn't going to be such a big issue. But as soon as you introduce a few paragraphs, and actually expect your visitors to read them, tickers may not be such a good idea.
Another solution to this, again implemented in some webpages, is to allow users to actually pause the ticker if indeed it is causing too great a distraction for them.
2. Difficulties for users' reading habits
In user tests for the 1997 sun.com website redesign, usability expert Jakob Nielsen got typical target users to look at different aspects of the website. One aspect was that of a scrolling ticker, which received negative feedback. Some users mentioned that 'they were hard to read and time-consuming to interpret'; and that they 'kept missing the the beginning of the text and thus had difficulty understanding what the message was about'.
If you're trying to communicate vital information to users, is a ticker going to be the most suitable method, bearing in mind some users (including many dyslexics) will have real trouble reading from moving text? Some tickers, will not suffer from this issue so badly, because the text itself isn't moving. Others, in which full sentences pass from one side to the other, will certainly cause problems.
Overall, tickers can have great potential for alerting regular users to news and changes to a website. However, it's worth spending some time considering whether they will actually be of use to your website's key user targets, or whether it will cause them more irritation than genuine help.
If you want to give people content on a Web page, give it to them. A callout box with your hot news item can be much more effective, and doesn't suffer the usability drawbacks of a ticker.