Pretty Simple: web, digital, social

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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)

WCAG 2.0. Success Criteria 1.4.2 – Audio Control

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.

Technique G170: Providing a control near the beginning of the Web page that turns off sounds that play automatically

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.

Understanding Success Criteria 1.4.2

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…

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11 Responses to Auto-play: a usability and accessibility failure

  1. The Goldfish says:

    Absolutely! So glad someone has blogged about this so well. This seems to have got a lot worse in the last few months. The worst offender I’ve come across is the BBC News website who have started auto-streaming video on some news articles. This particuarlly bugs me because there are reasons why folk avoid television news and opt for the written word – and you’d think given very similar content is readily available in either format, they’d trust users to make the choice.

    The idea that the video is essential content which the user might otherwise avoid strikes me as somewhat patronising.

    • James says:

      Thanks for your comments Goldfish. Yes it is rather patronising isn’t it – well said! Interesting to hear your feedback about the BBC News site too – I’m also one of those folk who avoids TV and you’re right, I have very little interest in such video content, much preferring to stick to the text. MySpace is another major culprit but that’s probably the least of their worries!

  2. Gary Miller says:

    Hi James,

    I sympathise – knowing how seriously you take accessibility, this must have been galling for you to implement. I suppose the people who made the decision have no interest/ideas about the issues involved?

    Good post!

    • James says:

      Thanks for the sympathy Gary! I only represent one department within the organisation so I have no jurisdiction over those particular vids, although I did make my opinion known. I believe the people behind it are aware of the issues so hopefully the auto-play will get the boot soon. Watch that space…

  3. Heather says:

    The BBC News website is tickety boo compared to a certain Glasgow newspaper family which has been known to post multiple videos on single pages which then all load and begin to stream *simultaneously*.

    • James says:

      Wow, that sounds really bad Heather. I can’t even imagine what the reason for doing that would be, other than not having the technical ability to even know how to turn autoplay off!? Anyone else fancy naming and shaming such bad practice?

  4. Heather says:

    This particular newspaper family makes so many juvenile usability errors in their web sites (including, in one paper’s web site, a main horizontal nav bar which changes on every page) that I’m convinced that it’s deliberate to get people to keep buying the paper copies. I used to say that as a joke, but every time I see another design and form howler which makes the sites difficult for me to use as a fully functioning person, let alone someone with disabilities, the “joke” becomes more obvious.

  5. Heather says:

    Cue Twilight Zone theme. The newspaper family above have just this morning taken their new beta site live. Who would be up for a joint effort this weekend to review the site for usability, accessibility, and form issues, to post a joint comment to their beta blog next week?

  6. Jace says:

    With the likes of BBC news and You Tube autoplaying their videos will this start to change users expectations and acceptance in this respect? If the sites primary purpose is to serve video does it become more acceptable/expected?

    • James says:

      Thanks for your comment Jace. As I mention in my post, you could certainly argue that following a link to Youtube means that you can reasonably expect to get a video playing – as you say, its primary purpose is to serve video. But sites with that primary purpose are actually quite rare, and sites like BBC News certainly don’t fit into that category.

      Also, from an accessibility perspective this isn’t just about acceptance. A screen reader user may very well accept and perhaps even expect autoplay, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy for them to make sure it plays in harmony with their software once on the page. This is exactly why WCAG 2.0 discourages the practice of autoplay.

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