10 Guidelines for Creating Great Captioned Videos

Summary

The best captions are the ones the user can customize. Not all platforms come with customization options or detailed ones. Moreover, there's no such thing as 100% accessible captions. That's because there's always someone who prefers a different option. If you want to create accessible captions, follow these 10 guidelines to great captions. When you apply them, your captions are most likely optimized and accessible.

We have a new problem with videos. It’s a good problem to have. With more do-it-yourself captioning apps on the market, more people are captioning their videos. However, the options they select for their captions don’t always follow best practices and affect the user experience.

When you watch captions for decades, you learn what works and what doesn’t work. The key to great captions is invisibility.

Invisibility? Meryl, are you kidding me? If they’re not there, how can you read them? Not that kind of invisibility.

What I mean by invisibility is that I won’t notice anything about them. If I notice something about the captions, that’s usually not a good sign.

Captions up top? I notice. (Unless it’s when the credits appear.)

Captions hard to read? I notice and quit watching.

Captions riddled with typos and inaccurate? I notice and quit watching.

Captions that disappear. Ditto.

You get the idea.

Even though it’s been more than 30 years since I got hooked on the Carrington and Colby family feuds on “Dynasty,” the components of excellent captions haven’t changed much. That’s because simple works. Great captions are boring!

Here’s the secret to the best captions. The best captions are the user’s preference. More streaming and video platforms offer customization. You can change the font, colors, size, and other factors. Some have more options than others.

To ensure the user can customize the captions, use closed captions. Besides, when you use closed captions, you won’t have to worry about the font, size, and colors. You’ll still need to manage accuracy, line length, and the other elements.

Why Good Captioned Videos Are Important shows you some of these Caption 10 guidelines and best practices in side-by-side videos. One video follows the rule. One breaks it. People say these videos show them why captioning best practices matter.

DCMP’s Captioning Key is one of the best resources for creating accessible captions. I created these Caption 10 Guidelines based on my experience and knowledge of accessibility. Then, I tweaked them after interviewing users, finding Captioning Key, and doing surveys. If you follow these 10 guidelines, your captions are most likely accessible.

1. Readability

If you only follow one rule, make it this one:

Captions should be readable.

If they’re not readable, then the other rules don’t matter.

Four things factor into readability: size, color, background, font, and case.

Size

Small captions can be tiring to read even for people who don’t wear glasses. Large captions can cover up too much of the video. Goldilocks learned the hard way. You want to aim for just right, not too big or too small.

Remember to check your captions on small and large screens. People may be watching on mobile devices. Or they don’t expand the screen to full size.

Color

The key is contrast. White text with no background can break readability. The thin, white font strains the eyes because it tends to blend with the background, especially a light one.

I’ve seen videos with more than one color in the caption text. The recommendation is to use one color for multiple reasons. For one, many people are colorblind or color-sensitive.

According to the National Institute of Health, about 8% of men have red-green color blindness. Using one color ensures a consistent and effortless reading experience.

Remember, captions need to be invisible. People will notice the captions when it has more than one color. You want viewers to grasp what the captions say, not what they look like.

Background

The background is the color behind the text. Standard captions use an off-black background with off-white text. They work well because of the strong contrast and muted colors. However, some think a solid background hides too much of the video.

The problem with a transparent background is that you can see a lot of movement behind them. They can distract me to the point that I miss the content.

If you use a transparent background, use it wisely. Verify nothing behind the captions distracts the viewer.

This is another reason why customizable closed captions are the best option. You don’t have to worry about formatting them.

Font

The Goldilocks rule applies to fonts too. The font needs balance in that it’s neither too thin nor too thick that the letters blend.

As for the font style, aim for simplicity because fancy fonts can hurt readability.

Case

There’s a bad trend happening in captions. It’s not progress over perfection. It’s a step backward.

When I first started watching captions, they were in all caps or uppercase. They also had a black background with white text.

The black-and-white captions continue today. That’s because they work. At one point, the captioners experimented with other colors, but that didn’t last long for good reason.

Subtitles are meant to be plain and readable. They’re not for branding or getting creative.

Anyway, one thing changed from the early days of captioning. The captioners switched to sentence case. That’s because they’re more readable than uppercase for many.

Let’s look at an example with my name.

MERYL

Meryl

All caps show zero shape variation. MERYL has a flat top edge and a flat bottom edge. That’s it. No change in shape. It’s like a rectangle block.

Meryl shows three variations on the top:

Once for the M
Once for e, r, y,
Once for the l (little L).

Meryl also has three variations on the bottom:

Once before the y
Once for the y itself
Once after the y

Visual differences in sentence case captions boost readability. The lack of visual differences in UPPERCASE adds friction to the reading experience.

People with disabilities and even no disabilities struggle with uppercase captions.

Side-by-side of the same video. Left shows mixed case captions and right shows uppercase captions

Some live shows resort to uppercase captions to increase speed. The purpose is to increase delays between when the words are spoken and when they appear in the captions. So with live programs, the choices are speed vs. delay, which affects synchronization.

I try to avoid live captions and catch the recording. But that’s not always possible.

Unfortunately, more recorded shows contain uppercase captions. Yes, a small population prefers all caps. This is where customization comes in handy. They can choose an all caps font. But most prefer sentence case.

Some captioners use uppercase letters for speaker identification like this:

MERYL: Please use sentence case captions.

Here’s a better way to improve readability:

[Meryl] Please use sentence case captions.

Subtitle viewers know that words in brackets aren’t spoken or represent sound. Both are standard practices. Just remember that all caps has no visual shape and takes more work to scan.

Captions will never win beauty contests because being pretty and colorful defeat their purpose.

The readability of great captions is effortless. It allows the viewer to quickly read the captions while watching the action on the screen.

2. Accuracy

Great captions correctly capture everything that’s said word-for-word. If it’s said, if it’s heard, then it must be captioned. Yes, even the bad words. Would you believe some captions have swapped out bad words with clean words or blanked them out?

Accuracy also means completeness. I’ve seen captions paraphrasing what’s said instead of showing every word. The paraphrasing misses important things. Why should caption viewers get a different script than those listening?

Accuracy means no disappearing captions. One TV channel is notorious for having one or two lines disappear. A character was reading a note she found. I never found out what it said.

That’s why autocraptions have earned their nickname. Autocraptions are rarely better than no captions. Even W3C Web Accessibility Initiative says automatic captions are not sufficient. They need to be edited.

Automatic captions create a confusing and tiresome user experience because the viewer must work harder to figure out what’s said. It’s not simply filling in the blanks of a word here or there.

In her weekly Marketing Minute tip email, Marcia Yudkin shared a story about an ad that claimed: “Learn 80% of Chinese in 3 months.” If this is true, then this is a terrible accuracy rate.

She gave the following example:

“That’s two out of every ten _____ that are _____.”

“It’s the 20 percent missing words there that indicate the real meaning, the critic said, and if that’s as far as you’ve gotten, you’re barely out of the gate,” Yudkin wrote. “You’re not amazingly near the finish line at all.”

Meryl on screen with bad caption example "birth disruption the utopian what the heater is bleeding but as none of the"

Example of automatic captions.

I assure you I did not say “birth disrupting the utopian what the heater is bleeding but as none of the” as the above image shows. Sounds like a bad scene from The Handmaid’s Tale.

Some skip watching a video with automatic captions. They know they will become frustrated by the lousy captioning experience.

You can use automatic caption files as a starting point. They can save time for some folks and reduce editing time. The key is to edit them.

Damn (sorry, y’all!) good captioning is about capturing everything that’s said correctly. When captions show everything that’s said and happening, we enjoy the experience knowing that we’re getting the same experience as those listening.

Muddled and incomplete captions create a crummy experience. Just say no to autocraptions. (Unless you edit them.)

3. Synchronized

It could be the captions do not match what’s happening on the screen. It could be the speaker’s lips say something completely different than what the captions show.

Yes, we can tell when the captions are not in sync with what’s being said even with the sound off. You want to ensure the timing follows the action as closely as possible.

When the captions and the video are out of sync, it’s dizzying whether or not you can hear it. Your eyes see one thing happening, but the captions say something else.

4. Length

Yes, size matters …

Really, really matters …

… in great captions

Oh … my … goodness! I’ve seen some videos that use an app, which shows the captions …

One …

word …

at …

a …

time …

Picture a two-minute video showing captions one word at a time … FAST. Exhausting! Even for fast readers. You’re so focused on following the captions that you ignore the action on the screen. It also makes it harder to understand the message.

Then there’s the opposite problem. Captions that run three, four, or five lines long and take up the entire length of the screen. It’s easy to lose your place. They disrupt the experience.

Check out the next example.

This one block of captions would work better when split into four blocks. You also want to avoid making them so wide that they take up the full length of the screen.

The reason for shorter captions is that it keeps you from losing your place. It also prevents reading from the far left to the far right side. Long captions turns them into a reading experience instead of a scanning one.

Good captions tend to run about one or two lines long. Viewers follow along better. The line length depends on many factors.

Also, pay attention where you cut off the captions. This is known as breaking points or line division.

Let’s say you have one or two lines of captions. And the last word is of, to, the, and, or something similar that leaves you feeling like you’re facing a cliffhanger. Try to avoid leaving people hanging by ending with a preposition, conjunction, or another short word.

Keep names together. In other words, I wouldn’t break “Meryl” and “Evans.” They stay together. You can find the best tips in this guide on line division at Caption Key.

5. Position

Do you like the bottom or top position?

In captions, of course!

Like size … position matters … in great captions!

Where the captions appear on the video matters. And It needs to be consistent.

I’ve seen videos with captions moving around for no reason. This hurts the user experience.

When you use a text file with captions, the text appears on the bottom. It’s standard because it works.

It places the captions below people’s faces. So, the captions are closer to the mouth. And the eyes naturally look upward to view the entire screen.

But when captions show up top, When eyes look upward, they’ll see nothing. You won’t find data on this. It’s not scientific.

Captions at the top disrupt the experience. I remember trying to watch a whole episode of the captions on top. I missed a lot of the video. My eyes worked harder to follow the captions.

Yes, there are exceptions. Refer to No. 7: Credit.

In multiple informal surveys, 99% of the participants picked the bottom. Stay consistent and keep the captions in one place for the entire video. The best practice is on the bottom.

6. Sound

People viewing your video may have the sound off. Caption statistics show many watch videos without the sound off. Or they can’t hear it.

Sound plays a critical role in videos:

  • It foreshadows.
  • It reveals what’s happening.
  • It explains why someone reacts.
  • It makes us dance.
  • It lets viewers know the captions didn’t break.
  • And so much more.

Take a look at this video showing what a difference captioning sound makes.

A simple way to indicate a sound is to put it in [brackets].

Silence is also important to note. The opening of one TV show’s episode went on and on without captions. Did the captions muck up? Is it music? What?! After putting on my bionic ear, I watched it again. It was music. The captions should’ve noted that and any [silence].

Would you believe there are times when a song plays with lyrics, but the captions show nothing or just musical notes? <headdesk> If the lyrics are heard, then they need to be captioned.

That’s a surefire way to have unhappy viewers. Of course, you want to make them happy. Just caption those sounds and it’ll be music to their ears!

7. Credits

Although I covered this a little bit in position, credits need their own rule. Position is about the placement of the captions. Credits is about making sure people can see on-screen text and the captions with ease.

Way back in 1980-something, I recorded a musical special. When I watched it, my heart sank. Fort Worth had bad weather that night.

Naturally, the local station scrolled the weather report at the bottom of the screen. The captions disappeared.

The trick is to ensure the captions and the text don’t overlap.

People often ask if the spoken text appears on the screen, do you caption it? It depends. Jeopardy! is a good example. The game show never captions the “answers.”

If the on-screen text isn’t readable, then caption it. Here’s something to know. Some people use a refreshable Braille display with captions. But this only works on some platforms. In this case, you want to caption anything said and shown on screen. The important thing is to let viewers see the captions and the on-screen information.

8. Voice

[Clears throat]

I shall attempt to speak with a British accent. [Does not sound British. #AccentFail]

That’s why voice plays an important role in captions. Voice refers to voice changes. It’s not who is speaking, but rather how a person speaks.

Voice changes can reveal when someone …

  • Imitates a person, character, or something else.
  • Talks hoarsely.
  • Changes their tone of voice.
  • Uses a different accent.
  • Screams. A big deal in horror films.

A voice changes for a reason. And viewers need to know when this happens. Caption those voice changes to keep everyone in the loop.

9. Speaker

Who said that?! There have been times when it’s not clear who’s talking on the video. Sometimes the speaker isn’t on-screen or two people speak and the captions show dialog from both.

Letting viewers know who speaks the line is important. You have different ways to show this with captions.

Use a person’s name like this:

  [Caesar: To be or not to be]

  [Brutus sighs]

Put the captions under the speaker.

Indicate two different speakers with a dash as in:

 – Are you hungry?

 – Yes.

Speaker identification tells us …

  • Who apologizes.
  • Who is singing.
  • Who cracked a joke.
  • Who is acting like a villain.

10. Motion

Live show captions … well … suck … (I’m sorry for such a strong word, but it’s the truth.)

Every year, I look forward to one live TV show. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. What I love about it is watching the performances of the musicals playing on Broadway.

While watching, I do this almost every year.

[Facepalm]

Why?

Because the captions almost always mess up.

Part of the problem is that it’s live. Live shows come with captioning challenges. The other part is that it uses rollup captions, a caption style commonly used in live programs. I call it scrolling because people understand what it means better than roll-up.

This is one of two styles of how captions move. The other is more common and that’s the pop-in. [Crowd cheers]

In talking to other caption users, the consensus is we prefer pop-in. But we know sometimes scroll happens.

People quit watching live TV because of the flaws and the frustration with roll-up captions. They create a bad viewing experience.

It’s very hard to get live captions right. The only time roll-up captions are acceptable is in live programming. There’s not always a way around it.

If you use roll-up captions, ensure they follow these guidelines:

  • Capture audio accurately. (The biggest problem in live captions.)
  • Use sentence case.
  • Follow readability recommendations. (Not an issue when closed captions.)
  • Move from left to right and top to bottom. (Get this! There have been times when the captions moved in the opposite direction. It was dizzying!)
  • Keep up with the sound. (Little delay between the audio and the caption.)
  • Scroll smoothly.
  • Do not fade in or fade out.
  • Do not block anything like credits and chyrons.

Why no fading? Because the animation from fading adds friction to the caption experience.

Good captions are effortless.

Adding captions is only half of the equation for great captions. The other half is quality. You can do a lot of things right and still make these common caption mistakes.

Thank you for following these 10 Guidelines for Great Captions. For more resources about captioning videos, refer to the Captioned Guide.

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