Why is auto-play bad for website accessibility?
Do you find it annoying when someone who is playing music or a video in a public place doesn’t use headphones, but expects you to listen to their music or movie choice without you having a say in the matter? Well, how do you think your visitors might feel when they land on your site and they are greeted by an auto-play video of your latest ad, music or at Christmas time, continuous falling snow?
I love Christmas decorations and lights but a few years ago I got the nickname of the Grinch after I asked for falling snow to be taken off a website I was helping to optimise. It had broken an A/B test I was running. But more importantly it can be very distracting and make a site inaccessible for those visitors using a screen-reader. For some users it can even cause migraines and seizures. This can significantly harm your conversion rate.
What kinds of auto-play can reduce conversion?
Animated visual effects, such as falling snow or other moving images that go across or down the screen.
- A music player that begins playing once a page has loaded.
- Animated GIFs that automatically play when you arrive on a page.
- An auto-rotating slider or carousel.
- Anything else that moves or flashes automatically on a page can be considered auto-play. So, why can auto-plays reduce conversion?
Movement is distracting:
Conversion expert Tim Ash from Site Tuners refers to movement as the “nuclear option” because our brains are hard-wired to be drawn to any kind of movement in case it is a threat to our existence. We can’t help but look towards anything that moves. If this is your call to action then it may be appropriate, but if it is anything else then the risk is that it will take your visitor away from your conversion goal.
It can obscure vital assets or information:
Falling snow or other visual effects that result in random sections of your page being covered with moving images can make it difficult to read information or instructions. In addition it can actually prevent users from interacting with clickable images (e.g. Add to basket CTA) because the effect temporarily covers the asset concerned. This can result in cart and site abandonment.
Trigger migraines & seizures:
According to the Epilepsy Foundation, around three percent of people with epilepsy find that exposure to flashing lights or certain visual patterns can trigger seizures. These kinds of visual effects can also cause migraines which are a much more common for web users. Moving content and blinking can be a severe distraction for people with certain health conditions such as attention deficit disorder as they find it difficult to focus on other parts of the screen.
Audio-auto-play reduces accessibility:
Audio or video auto-play can be especially intrusive as the sound will either cancel or conflict with other audio tracks the user is listening to at that moment. This can be very annoying for a user who is listening to music or someone in a quiet zone. However, for someone using a screen-reader an audio track can make the site unusable as they won’t be able to continue with their task until the audio track has finished playing.
Auto-sliders or carousels are so common it is easy to assume they must work because so many sites use them. Unfortunately this is the kind of herd mentality that many business people use to justify adding an auto-slider to their site.
The evidence from many A/B tests and usability tests is very different because visitors lose control of the user interface when assets are automatically moved around by the slider. Further, low literacy and international users often don’t have enough time to finish reading the slider before it is removed.
As auto-sliders move and they look like banners many users assume they are ads. This means they are more likely to ignore them and as a consequence interaction levels on many auto-sliders are miniscule. Auto-sliders that I have analysed generally have a low level of clicks (less than 1% of visitors) and the vast majority of clicks are on the first position.
Erik Runyon’s analysis of sliders also shows very low levels of click through on these assets. Further, he confirms that most clicks (between 54% and 89%) are on position one of the slider.
Apart from being distracting, auto-plays make sites less accessible and can trigger or exasperate certain medical conditions. It is also perceived as aggressive and annoys people because they have lost control of the user interface without giving permission. Once you have annoyed visitors their perception of your whole site and your product will be negatively impacted.
- Give back control to your visitors. Display a prominent play button (i.e. above the fold) and make your slider user controlled with obvious icons (i.e. not small dots that few users will notice). Even better, remove your slider as they generally don’t engage users.
- Silent explainer videos can sometimes work as it is the audio element that is usually most disruptive. But make sure there is a prominent button to pause or stop it for returning visitors or those customers who want to continue to browse.
- Short video clips (i.e. 5 seconds or less) can work, but again have a skip or stop button for those impatient visitors who want to continue with browsing.
- Avoid any random moving images or flashing assets (e.g. falling snow) as this can seriously reduce accessibility for some visitors and is generally distracting.
- When users are informed beforehand that a link will take them to view a video clip it is acceptable to use auto-play as this meets their expectations.
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- About the author: Neal provides digital optimisation consultancy services and has worked for brands such as Deezer.com, Foxybingo.com, Very.co.uk, partypoker.com and Bgo.com.
- Neal has had articles published on website optimisation on Usabilla.com and as an ex-research and insight manager on the GreenBook Blog research website. If you wish to contact Neal please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow Neal on Twitter @northresearch, see his LinkedIn profile or connect on Facebook.