Video Usability

by Amy Schade on November 16, 2014

Summary: Video content is helpful only if users have control over it, understand what’s contained within it, and have an alternate way to access it.


Video is everywhere. We’re watching it on our laptops, desktops, tablets and phones. Video can entertain and inform us, show us how a fabric flows, how a product works, how to tie a knot, where we can go on vacation, or even demonstrate how to think aloud during a usability study. But this format only works if users know that the video is there, are encouraged to watch it, can successfully view it, and have control over it.

There are two forms of online video:

  • Entertainment: This type of video uses the Internet as a television network with on-demand functionality. The only interactive element for users is deciding what to watch. Once the user clicks Play, the remaining user experience is equivalent to that of watching a traditional TV show: sit back and enjoy. The main difference are that online video is often (but not always) shorter than the 30–120 minute duration of most network TV slots and that the content can be dramatically more specialized because it’s narrowcast instead of broadcast.
  • Informational: This type of video is a web-content format that’s used together with other content — such as text and images — in the context of navigating and interacting with a website (or application). This is true multimedia, where the various media formats supplement — and hopefully reinforce — each other.

In this article, we’ll focus on the second, interactive, form of online video since that’s the one that raises more interaction design issues.

Don’t Rely Solely on Video

There is no “standard” behavior for users when they encounter video on a site. Some watch the video right away, some explore the surrounding text first, and afterwards watch the video, some have no interest in watching. Behavior for the same individual can vary from site to site or task to task. As such, there is no guarantee that someone will watch video content when it is presented.

Videos are a great way to convey information — provided the user can (and wants to) see and hear the content. Videos' big disadvantage is that they force users to access the content sequentially: users need to patiently digest content in the order in which it is presented without knowing whether what’s coming next will be relevant to their needs.  Videos require more of users’ time than an equivalent piece of text, because they don’t support rapid scanning for information, which is how most users interact with informational web content.

From an accessibility perspective, providing content as a video can limit access to the information contained in this format for anyone who cannot see or hear the content. In addition, videos break. In testing we’ve seen many a user run across a video that won’t load, doesn’t appear, can’t be played, or freezes.

This means that you shouldn’t be overly reliant on video to convey information. If users aren’t able to access the content or simply don’t want to, they should have the ability to collect information in another way. For accessibility, captions and a full transcript of the video should be included. This also allows users to pick and choose the content that is relevant for them without having to watch an entire video. At a minimum, ensure that any essential information contained in the video is also presented as text on the site.

This video on Penn State’s site includes captions, which help make video content more accessible.

Give Users Control

When users arrive at a webpage, they don’t appreciate being surprised by video or audio content that begins playing without their consent. Video, and the accompanying audio, can confuse or distract users, and can interfere with their consumption of content on the page. 

Those users who do not want to watch the video must devote cognitive resources and extra effort to figure out how to turn the audio off or pause the video, rather than focusing on their goals and information needs. Any movement on the page can be a distraction.

The Spotlight on Style section of this email message from Boden included video that automatically played upon opening the message. Automatically playing video can surprise, if not annoy, users.

Users don’t appreciate being surprised by video content that they do not expect. Links leading to video content should indicate the type of content to which they lead. Users assume links lead to pages filled with text and images, not video. Particularly not video that plays automatically.

Users should have control over what content they listen to or watch. When videos play automatically, many users’ first instincts are to either mute or pause the video. Users should easily be able to start, stop or restart a video, as well as mute it or adjust the volume on it, for any video or audio content on the site.

Also consider what the user should do at the conclusion of a video. Include a call to action as appropriate, or continue building the story with other information on the page, such as related links or related video content.  Many videos are essentially dead ends that leave the user with no clear path to additional information.

On the right side of the page, Cancer Treatment Centers of America provided a list of links related to the video content, including related videos and other pages to explore.

When you  embed content that is hosted by another site or service, aim to control what, if anything, the site feeds to users at the end of your video content. Make sure that users are not presented with inappropriate videos or with a list of your competitors’ videos at the end of your video.  Some sites and services have options for embedding content that allow you to turn these suggestions off. If not, you can supplement your “real” video with about 20 seconds of add-on video that simply shows a still picture with links to your recommended follow-up content.

At the end of this video on the website for Lurie Children’s Hospital, related videos from YouTube are shown. Some are associated with the hospital, but some are not and are shown due to the subject matter of the video.

Tell Users What’s Coming

Users should know what the video is about before being asked to commit to it. The name or title of the video should be descriptive and concise and should be accompanied by the topic, relevant information about the presenter or people who appear in the video, and the length of the video. The thumbnail, a static image used to represent the video, should be representative as well, which may mean it is a still from the middle or end, rather than the beginning, of the video clip being presented.  It should be an image that scales well, to look good when large or small in your page designs.

Video content is clearly displayed on the New York Times site, with the title and length appearing next to the Play button, and an accompanying caption for the still image providing further information. The video appears within an article about the show featured in the video, providing further context.

Details about the content of the video can help video consumption. One of the big drawbacks of video content is that users can’t effectively skim video content. Users may not want to commit to the full video, so giving users a list of content or topics (or transcript) can help them navigate to the appropriate area of the video.

Users are careful with their time and want to know how much time they need to dedicate to watch content. On mobile devices, under variable network connectivity, the length of the video is also an indication of the length of the download. We’ve seen many a user in a variety of tests on different sites start a video, only to instantly check to see how long that video is. Users weigh the potential value against the potential commitment.

Make Every Second Count

Because users need to see the value of the video right away, it is essential to start strong.

In the context of your own site, a video does not need a lengthy introduction that identifies your organization. In the realm of video content, even a few seconds can feel “lengthy” to a user. If any sort of intro is necessary, keep it short and to the point. The goal of such introductions is to identify the source of the information and the content contained within, which can be accomplished in 5 seconds or less. Lengthy introductions force users to wait for content and may cause users to leave before the true content even begins.

When thinking about introductions to videos, consider the standard use of video content on your site and the cumulative effect of such introductions. If users typically watch one video per session, a standard introduction doesn’t cause as much harm as if a user typically watches several videos in one session. Each identical 10-second introduction becomes an additional barrier to reaching content.

The first impression is crucial. With or without an introduction, the beginning of the video is the most important part. Users need to quickly be able to understand what they are watching and see its value, or they will navigate elsewhere.

Editing is essential. Videos not only need to be as short as possible, but also effectively concise. Cutting content, writing more succinct scripts, or editing with a critical eye may be the solution.

Making the Most of Video

Provide context around video content and give users control of playing the video, to allow them to make the decision of what to watch and when. Once users press Play, make the most of the video by eliminating unnecessary introductions and by tightly editing content to keep viewers engaged and informed.


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