Audio Slideshows: 4 Examples of What Works and Doesn't

For those of us without a ton of video footage (or hours to edit it), still photos combined with audio are a promising way to do something video-ish without as much investment.

Looking at a bunch of examples of these hybrid video-slideshows, I was surprised at 1) how powerful a story-telling tool they can be and 2) how little uniformity there is in format. Here’s a selection that show the broad range of formats, strengths and weaknesses.

Example 1: Amazing Story. But — Give Me Control!

This is the most powerful opening to a consulting site that I’ve ever seen (hat tip to Progessive Exchange). It does so many things right:

  • Nothing gets in the way of the story. It’s stripped down. Every word and frame moves the story ahead.
  • The text is the main focus, letting one element carry you through the whole story. You never lose track of your anchor.
  • The images and music supplement the text and set the mood without distracting. Because of them, I actually forgot I was reading — I felt like I knew what the guy’s voice sounded like.

And it’s a good thing, because the ONLY control they give me is a mute button. There’s no way to pause the video, go back if you miss something, or even see how long it is. And, if this is your hundredth visit to the Empax web site, there’s no way to skip this intro. (I have to imagine this drives the staff nuts!)

Those complaints are major ones, and especially vexing because they shouldn’t be hard to fix.

That said, I’ve watched this at least six times (not always intentionally), and I’m still blown away by it.

Update 3/9: My compliments to the team at Empax, who in very short order added controls to the slideshow. See their comment below for more details. Thanks for the thoughtful response!

Example 2: Never-Ending Slideshow – Where Am I?

This is an example from our allies over at the Nature Conservancy. This slideshow shows off stunning photography of an expedition to an oyster bed. It makes great sense to use audio to bring the photos even more to life.

Unfortunately, the player suffers from a fatal flaw: it has no indicator of how long the slideshow is. Worse, I’ve started it three times now, and I’ve had to start from the beginning each time. I’ve watched at least three minutes each time (an eternity in online video) and I have no idea if I’m still at the beginning or a few seconds from the end.

If you watch this one all the way through, leave a comment — I’d love to know how long it is!

Example 3: I Don’t Need Quite This Much Control…

This New York Times feature uses photos from Bolivia’s glaciers to show the human costs of climate change. Unlike the previous slideshows, it offers complete control over where you are and lets you to jump wherever you want. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite successful, either.

Here’s how this one works:

  • Each photo has a soundtrack. You can see at the bottom how long it is and control where you are (yay!).
  • If you do nothing, when you reach the end of a photo’s soundtrack, it automatically loads the next photo and starts playing that track.
  • You can also click on any of the thumbnails at any time, which loads that photo and its soundtrack.

The problem here is that it looks more like a photo gallery than a video — the thumbnails are in your face and the video controls are subtle. This cue puts you in click-around mode, not sit-back-and-watch mode. It’s like the designers were whispering, “You’re probably getting fidgety…here are seven other things to click on.”

The narration here is good, yet the interface encourages people to skip it. If you’re going to take the time to build a thoughtful soundtrack, trust it to guide people through. If you think it’s too long and people will get bored, go back and watch example number one for inspiration.

Example 4: Ah, Yes, Like This!

Such a relief to find this slideshow about San Francisco’s Farrallone Islands narrated by Lauren Sommer of KQED. (She’s a former colleague from Environmental Defense Fund, so I’m sure that’s why it came out so nicely.)

The audio narration is top-notch, just as you’d expect from a public radio station. The photos match up nicely and add a depth to the story that the even the constant gull cries in the audio can’t quite convey.

But, best of all, it has all the controls we are used to from video players:

  • Pause/play
  • Progress indicator showing the length of the show and where you are
  • Full screen option
  • Embed code

One minor complaint — the controls to jump forward and back a picture are a little inscrutable, as is the one open a thumbnail gallery. If you’re brave enough to click on them, they stop the audio, which is a little weird. But it’s easy enough to get it started again with the trusty play button, and those functions aren’t core to watching the show, so overall, high marks.

Conclusion: Promising Format, Why So Much Control Confusion?

Frankly, I’m puzzled about why there’s so much variety in the controls on these slideshows (and bad variety, at that!). In the early days of online video, we saw lots of glitchy controls that were placed weirdly and did unexpected things.

But we’re way beyond that now!

Here’s a fun post from 37 Signals that shows just how far we’ve come. Note that in pretty much all the video players pictured, the controls are in the same place, and in the key ones (pause/play and progress indicator) there’s very little variaton.

The video controls problem is solved — now let’s import the solution into audio slideshows.