My organisation recently published a number of videos on the public website (EDIT – have removed the link as the videos have been taken off now). Those videos started automatically as soon as the page loaded. The problems with this are:
- Automatically playing audio on a webpage is usually an action which the user will not expect. It is therefore, at the very least, an irritation, especially if the user is in an environment where this is not appropriate.
- At worst, though, the audio may conflict with other audio that the user is already listening to. That might be music, or perhaps another video. But far worse, it could be a blind user’s screen reader software, and the resulting conflict would make it very hard to browse that page to pause the video or mute the sound.
Auto-play = poor usability
When I asked about whether the auto-play was necessary, I was told that it was to ensure that people watched the videos, which contained important content. I would guess that people are far more likely to recoil at the auto-play and close the page than they are to happily watch the video, which then has an impact on them accessing the other text content on the page. Also, users may consider this a breach of website etiquette, making them likely to distrust the entire website as an ‘unknown quantity’.
In general, people don’t like anything unexpected being forced upon them. You could argue that in some instances you can give the user due warning (for example, via link text which states that the video will start automatically) and in certain contexts it is probably more acceptable (offering a link to a YouTube page, for example, means that anyone who follows that link has clearly decided to view that video). But neither of these apply in this instance – the main link text stated that it was to ‘information’ on the subject.
Auto-play = poor accessibility
As mentioned above, auto-play can conflict with screen reader software. For this reason it is specifically addressed in the internationally recognised Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), which has the following to say:
If any audio on a Web page plays automatically for more than 3 seconds, either a mechanism is available to pause or stop the audio, or a mechanism is available to control audio volume independently from the overall system volume level. (Level A)
The ability to turn off the audio is therefore considered to be a sufficient compromise when using auto-play, although the recommendation is that the control be made available at the top:
The intent of this technique is to allow a user to turn off sounds that start automatically when a page loads. The control to turn off the sounds should be located near the beginning of the page to allow the control to be easily and quickly discovered by users.
However, WCAG 2.0 does still give the following warning:
Playing audio automatically when landing on a page may affect a screen reader user’s ability to find the mechanism to stop it because they navigate by listening and automatically started sounds might interfere with that navigation. Therefore, we discourage the practice of automatically starting sounds (especially if they last more than 3 seconds), and encourage that the sound be started by an action initiated by the user after they reach the page, rather than requiring that the sound be stopped by an action of the user after they land on the page.
It’s interesting to note that in the example I’m referring to, where my organisation has embedded a WMV in the page using Windows Media Player, I found myself unable to tab into the player using FireFox. Even when you can tab into the player, you have 36 links to tab past before you get to it. This means that we fail this criteria as a result, as non-mouse users will not be able to stop the video easily, if at all.
Given that the content of the video was considered so important that we apparently needed to force it onto people using auto-play, we’re seriously letting down those users who won’t be able to access that content properly.
Client preference vs user preference
This is a great example of the preferences of the content provider conflicting with the needs and preferences of the content consumer. These sorts of conflicts come up many times when developing sites (perhaps the most common is the request to open external links in new windows). Almost always, the arguments benefit the client, rather than the user. And whilst you may force a few more people to view your video, or stay on your site, or view something the way you want them to – ultimately you are harming your relationship with that user and, more often than not, they’ll be gone before those end credits roll…