With gratitude for (and apologies to) James Lileks and his outstanding book “Gallery of Regrettable Food”, this is the first in an occasional series I’m calling “Regrettable user experience”. In each “Regrettable” article I’ll briefly highlight a website or application practice that should be avoided entirely or executed in a very different way. I’ll also give suggestions on making it less regrettable.
First on my Regrettable list is a semi-rare but still annoying “feature”: automatically triggered background music.
Let me be clear: I’m not referring to websites that employ music as part of user-triggered product demonstrations, slide shows or other multimedia displays. I’m referring to websites that begin playing a soundtrack as soon as you hit the home page, and continue playing it as you move through the site.
There aren’t a lot of websites these days that employ this “feature”, but it can be found here and there. For example I recently visited the Ethan Allen website while looking for a furniture image to use in an article.
As soon as I landed on the Ethan Allen home page, a soundtrack began playing – and I wondered where this bizarre and not terribly appealing music was coming from. I couldn’t find a button to stop the music, or a slider to control its volume. (Side note: They seem to have killed their background music since I visited the site about a month ago).
In any event there are a few reasons why automatic background music is regrettable:
- It violates the principle of user control. As I’ve discussed before in my article on the User Operation Prohibited DVD tag, it’s important to grant users a reasonable amount of control over their experience. Playing music automatically bypasses user control.
- It’s much more likely to annoy than please users. This is especially true if the music loops or re-starts each time a new page is loaded. Keep in mind, unless you’re appealing to a very, very narrow group of users that are just like you it’s extremely likely that your taste in music is not the same as theirs. Also keep in mind that users may already be listening to music when they arrive at your website. For those users the addition of a second sound source will create an involuntary and random mashup that’s probably not going to win any Grammys.
- It can create very awkward moments. Suppose a user visits your website while in bed with their laptop, their spouse sleeping next to them. Your music starts playing and you’ve just startled a potential customer and caused them to search frantically for a way to make your website shut up! The same type of situation (minus bed and spouse) could also take place at an office, a computer lab or a library.
- It’s probably not necessary. I suppose one could argue that background music can add an element of brand identity in the right situations, but given all the drawbacks there are much better ways to reinforce brand identity visually.
Of course there are some cases where music can and should be part of the user experience. For example if you’re selling music (e.g. – a record store or band website) then it makes perfect sense to offer sound clips or even complete downloads. But importantly, sound clips like this should be triggered and controlled by the user, not triggered by default. Even on band websites I don’t advocate playing the band’s music unless a user triggers the playback.
Making background music less regrettable
There are two good – and relatively obvious – ways to address the problem created by automatically triggered background music:
1. Don’t use it at all
2. Use it but:
- Default the music player to an “off” condition and enable users to turn it on if they so choose,
- Display a prominent control to pause or stop it and change the volume. This control needs to be clearly visible on any page that the user can visit while still hearing the music. It should also be large enough that users can easily manipulate it if they need to stop the music or change the volume in a hurry.
This will make an otherwise regrettable website feature considerably more usable, and will avoid a great deal of potential user frustration.