People hate it when a loud video slaps you in the face without pressing play. For that reason, many people will tell you that autoplay is bad UX. But is it?
One unfortunate truth is that autoplaying gets our attention. It might also make you want to punch people in the throat, but still, you’re paying attention.
And that’s why it exists. For sites that don’t care about your loyalty (clickbait, etc.) autoplaying an annoying thing forces you to interact with it. You might even accidentally click a banner!
A couple weeks ago I was on the subway and a site had…something… that autoplayed when I loaded the page, with full sound. All of my fellow travellers were very pleased with the performance (not so much). But I couldn’t tell what was playing and I couldn’t find the pause button or the volume control to make it stop. So I left the page completely, and didn’t go back.
As a UX designer, that’s probably not the result you want from your users.
But the problem with autoplay isn’t autoplay. It’s control.
Facebook has videos that autoplay all the way down the feed as you scroll — which would sound like a nightmare if you hadn’t experienced it — but they play silently until you explicitly ask for the sound.
Not only do people not complain but it has created a whole new style of silent storytelling in social media. It’s actually a good thing. It makes the feed easier to consume, and gets more content in front of users without any extra interactions. It’s easier (i.e. more passive) than clicking each video before knowing what you will watch.
It’s almost like, dare I say it, old-school television. Brain, off. Just watch.
I don’t usually get into “tips & tricks” type posts, because I believe the way you think about UX is more important than the little “checklist” type things you can get anywhere on the internet.
The conversation about autoplay video often looks like a true/false “protip” type conversation, when it is actually a matter of perspective.
The problem with autoplay is that it forces you to act, and interrupts your thinking. You MUST deal with it, whether you like it or not, immediately. That creates anger or panic or negative surprise, and nobody wants those emotions.
It is a loss of control for the user.
If you remove those elements from the autoplay, suddenly it’s fine. So it’s not autoplay itself that is bad.
Autoplay can even save the experience.
I once designed a site for a television station with a huge autoplay video at the top of the screen. Not an ad. Full, free episodes. We even did a bunch of A/B tests on it to decide the best way to handle it.
At first there were some arguments from the client, especially from their developers. There might have been a little bit of yelling. Maybe from me. A few A/B tests go a long way to solve arguments.
But all the yelling stopped when we actually launched the re-designed site.
On average, visitors watched an extra 30 minutes when we autoplayed the video! 30 MINUTES! An HOUR in total. And since they generate revenue from ads within the videos, the autoplay function was a major factor in doubling the revenue of the website. DOUBLE!
Users don’t watch video for an hour by accident, so the experience itself was improved by using an autoplay video.
Imagine if we had just said “autoplay is bad” and moved on… it would have been a huge mistake.
We did a few things to make autoplay work:
1) It was quiet for the first ten seconds, and the video was obvious. There was no need to hunt for the volume button in a panic or anything like that. When the sound came, users were ready and waiting.
2) There was a countdown to when it would start playing, like the “next episode” in Netflix, and it told you what was about to play. You could choose alternatives or pause it as well. (This was before Netflix was big. #humblebrag)
3) It was a site for a cable channel, so nobody was surprised to find video content there.
4) User research and analytics told us that 70% of visitors came to the site to see the show they had just missed on old-school offline television, so that was the default video content. In other words, 70% of the time, we were autoplaying exactly what the user had come to see.
Overall it was very effective, both for the business and the users, and the opposite of what many people expect from autoplay.
Autoplaying a video is only bad if you take control away from the user and force them to interact with something they didn’t expect. Once those aspects have been removed, autoplay is actually pretty nice! Remember: old-school television has always used autoplay!
So next time someone says a particular feature idea or design pattern — whether it is autoplay or something else — is “bad” or “good” take a minute to deconstruct that belief. Decide why it is bad or good. It might be possible to remove the bad parts and keep the good parts by understanding it better.
And think about the psychology of the feature, not just the existence of the feature.
You might even do something innovative!