Saturday, February 09, 2008

Is it ever ok for websites to start playing audio automatically?

A few years ago there seemed to be general consensus within the usability community that auto-starting audio on webpages was 'a bad thing'. A 2004 survey, quoted on Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox in an article entitled 'Most Hated Advertising Techniques', found that 79% of respondents answered "negatively" or "very negatively" when asked about online ads which automatically play sound. Of course, people get annoyed by most aspects of online advertising, however it wasn't just audio from ads which got people's goat, as this wonderful 2005 thread from an Apple mailing list demonstrates. The thread starts with a query from a web developer about how to add background music to their client's webpage but the discussion soon turns to why he would want to commit such a crime, climaxing with the immortal quote "Background music on a web page makes baby Jesus cry".

Fast-forward a few years and the debate has moved on. Gone are the conversations about the niceties of embedding a MIDI file as background music (thank the Lord). The main game-changer has been the widespread adoption of Flash streaming, precipitated by the growth of broadband and the unprecedented success of a certain video sharing website. Suddenly, every man and his dog is streaming in Flash and the issue of audio auto-start is very much back in play.

Leaving the technology to one side for a moment, the most significant impact of YouTube on the debate is that more and more webpages have A/V as their primary purpose. Auto-starting audio on a page where the media is the main event is potentially very different from a page where it is secondary or, worse, incidental.

That said, many of the same issues remain. A huge amount of internet use is office-based where not everyone has headphones and not all colleagues are likely to appreciate a sudden burst of Chocolate Rain. The growth in broadband has also meant more users will already be listening to audio whilst browsing the web (75% of broadband users have listened to radio whilst browsing according to the Radio Advertising Bureau). Another, slightly less obvious issue, stems from the growth in tabbed browsing (pioneered by Opera and Firefox and then thrust into the mainstream by IE7). Anyone who's opted to restore their tabs from a previous browsing session will most likely also have spent some time trying to track down which tab is responsible for the audio blaring out of their speakers.

I guess it ultimately comes down to user expectations. The web isn't yet at a point where users expect audio to play without their specific say-so. YouTube is a partial exception in that the ubiquity of it's brand promise means that most users clicking on a YouTube URL in an email or elsewhere on the web will know to expect video (with accompanying audio) to start playing automatically. Few, if any, other websites enjoy that expectation. I still feel surprised and annoyed when I land on a MySpace page and audio starts playing automatically. Even the websites of inherently aural brands such as radio and television broadcasters are not yet expected to auto-start audio (yes, ABC, I'm talking about you).

Whether or not audio auto-start will ever become wholly acceptable on the web is a moot point. Web-enabled devices tend to be so inherently multi-function that it seems unlikely that the expectation of self-starting audio will ever take root in a way it has with traditionally single-function devices like radio or television sets. Interestingly, the majority of online advertisers have cottoned on to user expectations in this area, favouring visually arresting but silent videos, with an invitation to users to switch on the sound.

Perhaps user behaviours will shift (I'm already in the habit of hitting the mute button on my MacBook whenever unsolicited audio would be disruptive) or maybe the technology will evolve to automatically detect the appropriateness of audio in any given situation (e.g. computer thinks: it's after 10pm which means the kids are probably asleep so I won't play audio).

I'm personally of the view that audio auto-start remains a no-no on the web. Any potential benefit (e.g. attracting more attention, saving the user a click) is offset by the annoyance it will cause to others, many of whom will be scrabbling for the Back button / volume control and vowing not to return to your impertinent little website.

Interested to hear what other think - please leave a comment or vote in the below poll. Having road-tested PollDaddy a couple of months ago, I thought I'd give Vizu a spin this time...


Dan said...

I think the question is it 'ever' OK can only be a 'yes', as in Japan audio (and video) is quite commonly deployed on homepages etc. So that key question is about when it's culturally appropriate. Personally, I'm with you, but it'll be interesting to watch this one develop. Is it more like a film, DVD or audio CD or a book and magazine?

Dan said...

Actually, just noticed The Telegraph are doing it on their Arts index:

If a brand that conservative can, then maybe all bets are off.

Nick Booth said...