Autoplay is bad for all users

Translations: Belorussian, German and Polish

Autoplay is a bad idea not just for accessibility but for usability and general sanity while browsing. This article will explain what the problems are, where to find backup for arguments and what you can do if autoplay is a must have.

Autoplay of embedded audio and video clips is often requested from clients for a number of reasons, one is to increase view/listen stats when an advert is preceding it and fewer views can mean less revenue.

Interruption to browsing

When arguing a case to prevent autoplay from being used it is probably easiest to start with the following; the sound from the clip will override or conflict with other sounds that any user is listening to at that time.

At best, this is intrusive for someone who is listening to music or in a quiet area while browsing.

At worst, the site becomes unusable for people who have to listen to their screen-reader software and can not continue browsing the page until the clip has finished (if it ever does – think of a looping background sound on a page).

To understand the frustration that screen-reader users face, think of the interruption caused by advertising overlays that obstruct what you are trying to read where you can only continue once you’ve found and clicked on the close button. Except that the overlay is covering the entire page, has a transparent background so words are overlapping each other, and the close button only appears once you’ve read the overlay’s text!

W3C says autoplay is bad

The more referential, perhaps more respected, examples come from the W3C’s specification for accessibility (WCAG 2.0).

There is a small note in one of the audio criterion, that really should be applied to all multimedia:

Note: 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 Criterion 1.4.2 [Audio Control]‘

Another piece of information can be found in the ‘Pause, Stop, Hide’ criterion, which says:

Moving content can also be a severe distraction for some people. Certain groups, particularly those with attention deficit disorders, find blinking content distracting, making it difficult for them to concentrate on other parts of the Web page. Five seconds1 was chosen because it is long enough to get a user’s attention, but not so long that a user cannot wait out the distraction if necessary to use the page.

‘Understanding Success Criterion 2.2.2 [Pause, Stop, Hide]‘

Autoplay advice

If the business case for autoplay is too strong to counter there are ways you can mitigate it’s use.

  1. Only autoplay if the clip lasts for five seconds or less
  2. If the clip lasts over five seconds, you must provide the user with the option to stop or pause it
  3. Autoplay is generally acceptable if the user was aware, when they clicked the link, that the proceeding page was going to play a clip

Footnote

1. ‘Five seconds’ relates to the timing mentioned in the success criterion for ‘Moving, blinking, scrolling’

Update

I have recently added an update to this article at Autoplay is still bad for all users.

25 comments on “Autoplay is bad for all users”

  1. Very true, I am guilty of doing this, but in retrospect (ie after reading this article) it is so obvious. Sometimes we do need to be told how to suck eggs, as the tech and usability array of technology we work with, continues to expand.

    Glad to work in an industry where people think!
    Good article.

  2. I agree–autoplay is bad, bad, bad for ALL users! The idea that there could be a business case (much less a strong one) for something that is a huge, giant annoyance and turnoff is laughable!

    When I hit a site that has autoplay music, I either immediately leave (most of the time) or turn my speaker volume all the way down (only when there’s some compelling reason why I want to see some of the information at the site). Invariably, I forget to turn it back up, creating another annoyance the next time I actually want to hear something online! Ugh, I HATE auto-play music SO much.

  3. 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?

  4. Saying that some groups (like those with attention deficit disorder) become disoriented with flashing objects is total malarky. It’s inexcusable to move windows around or flash objects repeatedly, no matter what a person’s capacities. We’re not a bunch of Pavlov’s Dogs.

    Also, any bit of music or sound upon landing on a page is an invitation for me to leave, and I do. That includes videos. Content should not play unless initiated by me. It’s coming in on my computer, which is not a television.

  5. With tabbed browsing, autoplay is a first-rate annoyance.

    When I google for something, I usually open the most promising hits in other tabs. One of them starts blaring some noise and, because it sits in the background, I don’t even know, which tab/site this is from. So I must cycle and scroll (yes, it might be on the bottom of the page!) through all open tabs to stop this annoyance.

  6. Thanks, I was considering an auto-play YouTube video, but realized it was better to leave it for the visitor to play, after reviewing this page.

  7. Theres also another VERY good reason. Many of us work in offices and during our lunchbreaks we might slack off and read some news articles or whatever. There is nothing worse than having some video leap out and start blaring news, ESPECIALLY if the web page is on another tab requires systematically shutting down tabs until the sound stops, or even closing the whole browser. Of course when the browser re-opens the content is there thanks to that amazing anti-feature of reloading previous content when re-opening it.

    DO NOT AUTOPLAY VIDEOS EVER. Its bad useability, and if you get your customers fired they will forever hate your content!

  8. @artur – because they don’t know how to cater for or don’t care about groups of users who may find this problematic.

    I have seen an increase in video being used as background but that doesn’t mean that the recommendations are wrong. Developers just need educating in how to use video responsibly.

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