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Regrettable User Experience: website background music

by Mike B. Fisher on April 24, 2009

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,

and/or:

  • 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.


Image credit: Spud. Creative Commons licensed.

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Web Phrontistery » Wedding websites and their usability
August 17, 2009 at 10:25 am

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Mark June 29, 2009 at 8:10 am

What are your thoughts on the automatic video presentations? There is some service that creates these for ecommerce sites. An example is on the brightneonsigns.com site. I have to wonder if it reduces bounce rate and/or improves conversion rates.

Mike B. Fisher June 29, 2009 at 8:21 am

Thanks for the question. In general I think automatic video has the same problems as automatic music. But – if the user can easily/quickly mute it or turn it off then it’s less of an issue. It also depends on what the value-add (if any) is for the video.

There are perhaps 3 ways most websites use video:

1. To get the user’s attention and/or add emphasis to selling points/value propositions.

2. To present visual content such as product demonstrations.

3. As an alternative to brief written information or instructions.

In general the sites I’ve seen that employ category 3 are the least successful and result in the greatest annoyances for users. Of course there are always exceptions.

I’ll have to do a write-up on automatic video at some point in the future and examine it in more depth.

Tom G. August 24, 2009 at 2:29 pm

Great article. Not only is it one of my pet peeves but I love your point about user control. Many times I’ve had multiple browser windows/tab open and cannot recall where to stop that annoying music. I write a music/user experience blog called music UX…http://musicux.blogspot.com/. Please check it out.

Richard September 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Great article. I thought it would be cool to have background music on our site, but after reading your article I’m going to go take it out and see if our responses increase. Thanks!

Kirk Wakefield May 23, 2012 at 2:05 pm

It would be useful if you had research to back this up. We have been doing a series of studies on hotel and soft drink (Pepsi) websites testing the effects of music and generally find it enhances user experience. So, maybe it just annoys website designers?

If anyone here has access to some sites we could test (which have background music), would appreciate the contact. Kirk_Wakefield@baylor.edu

Mike B. Fisher May 23, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Kirk, it’s certainly possible that some users might enjoy music for some sites. My key point is that it’s dangerous ground because you can’t know the user’s context. For example you don’t know:

- How loud will the music play on their computer?
- Do they have external speakers attached?
- Are they expecting to hear music?

The user might have their system or speakers turned up loud because they were last listening to something very quiet. Or, as in the example from my post, they could be in a context where loud music creates a problem.

If you’re going to use background music then it makes sense at the bare minimum to keep the volume and/or pause/stop controls easily visible at all times. I’d also suggest using greater compression and normalizing the music file to less than 80% of maximum amplitude. That way, the music is somewhat quieter than maximum – and if a user doesn’t want to hear it, they have a choice.

Ultimately this is a user control issue. It might be nice to have statistics about how many users like to hear music, but it isn’t necessary in my opinion.

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