Does Your Video Make These 6 Common Caption Mistakes?

You review your captioned video one more time for caption mistakes. It contains no typos. The captions sync up with the audio. They have a blackish background with a whitish font. The captions show no signs of any leftovers from automatic captions aka autocraptions.

That means it’s captimized right? Captimize is my term for captions optimized. Opticapped just doesn’t work. Sounds like something related to the eyes.

Maybe. Maybe not.

A Captioned Video: Before and After

My friend Thomas Logan gave me permission to captimize his short clip. He didn’t do the original captioning other than providing the script.

The left is the captions before I got my hands on it. The right is the after captimization.

[bg_collapse view=”button-blue” color=”#ffffff” icon=”eye” expand_text=”Transcript” collapse_text=”Close transcript” ]Hi everyone, I’m Thomas Logan from Equal Entry and I’ll be presenting about the nine new proposed Success Criteria for WCAG 2.2 at [no sound].
A random fact about me, I love the sound of a xylophone. [xylophone sound rings] Also, I’m excited about Jamie Knight and Lion from the BBC’s presentation on Cognitive Accessibility for VR. I am sure the team has done amazing research and I can’t wait to learn from them. See you there in March!

Go ahead and play the video. What do you think of the differences? What changes did I make?

The after aka captimized video shows you an example of how the little things in captions make a difference.

Quality captions matter.

When a video makes these caption mistakes, I often quit watching. It turns out many do too. That’s because adding captions to a video is half of the formula for great captions. The other half is quality.

You invest resources to create captioned videos. Don’t let those efforts go to waste with subpar captions. Here are the six common caption mistakes I see in captioned videos.

Caption Mistake No. 1: Long lines of captions

My first captioned videos contained this mistake. I’d caption them on YouTube without paying attention to the length. I figured YouTube knew what it was doing. Wrong! Automated tools can only do so much. They don’t know how to handle the length of lines.

The recommendation is one to two lines of captions at no more than 32 characters per line. In reference to this, people ask if the captions disappear too fast when the lines are shorter.

Captioning Key’s caption duration guidelines are as follows:

  • Captions should have a minimum duration of 40 frames (1 second and 10 frames).
  • Captions should have a maximum duration of 6 seconds. (Background music notation is an exception to this guideline).

I never check the timing when captioning videos. That would take more time than I have. It always works out when I adjust the lines to be the right length.

Short lines make it effortless to scan the caption and watch the video. Long lines force you to read. It’s not instant. You’re reading from one side of the screen to the other. And you miss more of the video.

You also don’t want captions so short that people can’t read fast enough. I’ve seen videos where people are speaking regular sentences and captions show one or two words at a time. The captions pop out fast and strain the eyes.

[bg_collapse view=”button-blue” color=”#ffffff” icon=”eye” expand_text=”Transcript” collapse_text=”Close transcript” ]Hey, y’all! Meryl Evans here with a captions tip. [Softly] Yes, size matters. [Louder] Really, really matters in great captions.
You want to avoid having captions go one or two words at a time … so fast that even the fastest readers can’t keep up or absorb the information. You also want to avoid the captions going allll the way across … multiple lines … I’ve seen some go three, four, five lines long. You’re so focused on reading that you miss the action on the screen.
Goldilocks found the best answer and that’s the middle. Limit captions to one or two lines and aim for the middle of the screen So, yes … size matters in great captions.

Yes, there are exceptions for one-word lines. For example, a sound followed by a pause… or a person says one word and pauses or stops talking. It’s all in the timing.

The answer? Goldilocks got it right. Aim for the middle. Not too long. Not too short. Thus, in creating the right length of captions, the timing works out.

When I forced myself to pay attention to how I use captions on video calls, I could see what happened. I’d be scanning the captions while spending more time looking at the person’s face. Whenever the caption lines went longer, I couldn’t look at the person’s face.

Videos are a visual medium. You want to help viewers watch as much of the video as they can. Short captions make this possible.

The captions in a course on accessibility had long lines. An accessibility event’s promo videos also had long captions. The same goes for videos from big companies. Hence, it’s a common mistake that even accessibility pros and companies with plenty of resources make.

So, yes, size matters in great captions.

Length rule of thumb:

  • 1 to 2 lines
  • 32 characters per line

Tip: Use the captioning tool to get the timings correct. Open the caption file in a text editor to fix the length and breakpoints. You may be able to set the text editor to limit the lines to 32 characters.

Caption Mistake No. 2: No background color

Caption mistake: Still of Meryl talking head video with barely visible captions

Captioning Key’s font guideline regarding the box is where I have a different opinion.

“The use of white characters is preferred. They need to be medium weight, be sans serif, have a drop or rim shadow, and be proportionally spaced. The use of a translucent box is preferred so that the text will be clearer, especially on light backgrounds.”

I agree there needs to be a box around the captions. This ensures contrast between the text and the video. Some transparent boxes are too light. I’ve seen videos with these that distracted me because of the movement of the contents behind the captions. Captions on network TV usually have a dark translucent box. This works because you can’t see through it.

Here’s an example with too light of a background.

[bg_collapse view=”button-blue” color=”#ffffff” icon=”eye” expand_text=”Transcript” collapse_text=”Close transcript” ]This is about transparency in captions. Notice I’m using transparency. Be careful using it because it can get distracting.
For the best viewing experience, skip the transparency. Use an off-black background with white text. It works well.

As a compromise, my recommendation is to use an off-black box. Solid black (#000000 in web design) can be harsh for some disabilities. Thus, I use #242424 (off-black) for the background and #fffffd (slightly off-white) for the text.

It’s important to have a background or a box around the captions. Too often, the text blends in the video. It feels like you’re reading in a fog. Captions that use the black and white combination never have a contrast problem.

It ensures the captions are always readable. And that’s why readability is the No. 1 rule to great captions. If you can’t read it, none of the other rules matter. Captions can have typos, synchronization problems, and other issues. But no one will notice when the captions aren’t readable.

Great captions are boring for a reason. They don’t distract you like colorful captions can. You know where to find them when you need them. They let the video be the star.

Caption Mistake No. 3: Bad breaking points

A breaking point or line division refers to the end of the captions. Here’s an example:

Howdy, y'all! My name is Meryl Evans.

This line is 38 characters long. It needs to be shorter. Some will shorten it like this:

Howdy, y'all! My name is Meryl

While the length passes the 32-character test, it has a bad breaking point. First, a person’s first and last name should be in the same line. Second, “Howdy, y’all!” is a sentence. Ideally, the end of a sentence should be the end of the captions. Based on these two points, the best breaking point would be as follows:

Howdy, y'all!
My name is Meryl Evans.

This passes all the tests. One of the most frequent mistakes is ending a sentence and starting a new one in the same line. The only time that happens is when both are short like this:

Howdy! I'm Meryl Evans.

This line is under 32 characters and both sentences end in the same line. Another common bad breaking point is when there’s a sound like this.

Howdy! [Bell dings] I'm Meryl.

While this is 31 characters, the sound needs to be in a line by itself. Often, sound has its own captions. But sometimes it’s too quick. Hence, a better way to caption the previous line is to do this:

[Bell dings]

Why is line division so important? It prevents cognitive overload. It also doesn’t leave you hanging like this.

She approached the door and

Yes, the next caption may tell the rest of the story. However, it will work better to move “and” to the next caption. “She approached the door” gives you a complete thought in a nice tidy caption.

Captioning Key’s line division guidelines are spot on. It’s a tricky one, but with a little practice, you gain a feel for ideal breaking points.

Caption Mistake No. 4: Using colors

As mentioned in Mistake No. 2, captions are meant to be plain to avoid distracting from the video. Black and white do the job well. They never run into contrast issues. When a video contains colors other than black or white, it risks contrast issues. In some cases, it can hurt people’s eyes. I’ve seen some captions that are the reverse. They use a white background and black font. While it passes the contrast test, it fails the “brightness” test.

People with dyslexia, migraines, and other disabilities find big blocks of white uncomfortable. When I redesigned my website, it had a white background. I can’t believe I made that mistake. I tend to avoid a lot of white myself. Thankfully, someone pointed it out. I changed it to a light grey.

This example looks like very readable captions. They’re actually too big and fail the contrast test.

A dark-skinned girl with orange and white captions and a report card shows every test failed

A few companies choose caption colors to match their brand. This isn’t the time for branding. It’ll distract from the video. That’s what happened at a virtual conference. This video shows actual examples of color used in captions.

I attended an accessibility conference that captioned its sessions. I promptly quit watching as soon as I saw the captions with an ocean-colored background and white text. Although it may have passed the contrast test and ocean is a calming color, it added friction to the viewing experience.

Stick with off-black with off-white text. As mentioned before, I use #242424 for the background and #fffffd (or #fffff0).

Caption Mistake No. 5: Transcripts used as captions

Yes, there’s a difference between transcripts and captions. Transcripts used as captions force the viewer to read the captions. They’re typically wide with many lines. As mentioned in Mistake No. 1, regular captions have one to two lines with about 32 characters per line. Transcripts are not the same thing as captions.

A tale of two captioned events

Attendees at a virtual conference raved about the captions. I hated to break it to them, but they weren’t good.

Yes, it was great you could customize them. But you couldn’t control the lines. They had long lines and more than five rows of captions. Long captions turn the captioning experience from scanning to reading. When you read, you miss a lot of the video. Scanning happens in an instant that you catch more of the video.

The video has no sound. The first one shows a transcript being used as captions. The second one has proper captions with the right length, two lines max, and good size and placement.

Two completely different experiences. Before holding a virtual conference, check the vendor’s captions. Ask to see it in action.

The separation of presentation and content

Web designers know the importance of separating presentation and content. Separation makes it easy to change the look of web content. When not separated, changing the style requires updating every page.

Captions have their own presentation and content. In a live event with human captioners, the captioners deliver the content. They have no control over what the captions look like. This is the presentation. It includes colors, width, and rows of lines in the captions. Closed captions give the viewer control, which depends on the platform. Typically, the viewer can customize the color, font, and size of the captions.

But viewers have no control over the width and rows of lines. That’s why it’s so important to check out the captions on a platform before using it. In evaluating virtual event platforms, event professionals need to ask the vendor for examples of captions in action.

Transcripts cause cognitive overload. They force you to read instead of scan causing viewers to miss a lot of the video. Operational Overhead Caused by Horizontal Scrolling Text from Wayne E. Dick, Ph.D., explains the problem with sideways scrolling of web content. This is exactly what happens when transcripts are used as captions. It’s like my brain cannot absorb anything.

You do want to provide transcripts. But not as a substitute for captions. People like transcripts because they can review what they’ve missed or search for something. It’s easier to search for things with a transcript than with a video or audio.

Caption Mistake No. 6: Automatic captions

There’s a reason why I refer to automatic captions as autocraptions. Automatic captions cause problems.

Let me ask you this. Would you post an article on your website if it’s filled with mistakes? No? Then, why would you publish captions on your website if it has mistakes?

That’s what autocraptions are. They’re an unedited article. Autocraptions are like a person who speaks flatly without expression or inflection.

Verbal communication happens fast. It only takes one wrong letter, one wrong word in a caption to trip up the viewer. It sounds easy to figure out, but it’s not when the next caption shows up before you’ve had a chance to decode it.

Before the caption viewer can decipher the wrong captions, the captions will move on to the next lines. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. Take a look at the following video with three versions coming from different automatic captioning software and one that I added myself.

[bg_collapse view=”button-blue” color=”#ffffff” icon=”eye” expand_text=”Transcript” collapse_text=”Close transcript” ]Hey, y’all! Meryl Evans digital marketing pro here to create a video, so I can show you how to caption it.
It will be interesting to see how bad the automatic captions are for this video. I call them autocraptions because they’re riddled with mistakes. And they never, ever get my first and last name right.
Autocraptions don’t like my accent very much. It’s not a British or a French accent. Rather, I have a deaf accent because I was born hearing-free.
This video should be long enough now to do the trick. Thanks for coming and captioning your videos.

Here are 5 reasons why automatic captions are a big problem:

  1. Automatic captions don’t make sense.
  2. Automatic captions are embarrassing.
  3. Automatic captions give wrong information.
  4. Automatic captions hurt your brand.
  5. Automatic captions cause viewers to stop watching.

For those not familiar with W3C WAI, the organization develops standards and support materials to help people implement accessibility. Here’s what they have to say about autocraptions.

“Automatically-generated captions do not meet user needs or accessibility requirements unless they are confirmed to be fully accurate. Usually, they need significant editing,” W3C WAI writes.

Additionally, the National Deaf Center for Postsecondary Outcomes states automatic captions do not offer equitable access for students.

Don’t let your brand be associated with a #CaptionFail. I’ve got plenty of fodder in my #CaptionFail folder.

Quality Captions Matter

Maybe you’re still not convinced? Seriously? Here’s another one.

Before I met John Espirian, he already captioned all his videos and encouraged everyone to caption theirs. Needless to say, I liked him the instant I met him!

He posted a pronunciation video that cracked me up. I asked him if I could captimize his video to take it from good to great. He obliged.

The original video had a rectangle format. The cutoff captions in the BEFORE video couldn’t be prevented because I wanted to preserve his original captions.

The comparison videos work better as squares side-by-side. I once tried two rectangle videos with one on top of the other. That didn’t work at all. You couldn’t watch both at the same time.

The AFTER aka captimized video shows you an example of how the little things in captions make a difference. What differences can you spot?

[bg_collapse view=”button-blue” color=”#ffffff” icon=”eye” expand_text=”Transcript” collapse_text=”Close transcript” ]Hello. A quick pronunciation guide for you. Is it Ess-pih-run? [BUZZ] No. Is it Ess-pee-ree-un? [BUZZ] No. Is it Ass-pih-rin? [BUZZ] Hell no. Is it Ess-pih-ree-un? [DING!] Yes.
And by the way, if you ever forget, there is a pronunciation guide on my LinkedIn profile. Look for this: [Synthesized voice] John Espirian, the relentlessly helpful technical copywriter and all-round LinkedIn nerd, and author of Content DNA, available on Amazon. [John] Thank you very much.

Captions in a video can do a lot of things right, but still not be captimized. The little things make it possible to scan the captions without any cognitive stress.

I’m guilty of committing some in my early videos. They make me cringe! If you want your viewers to fully absorb your content, then avoiding these mistakes will help.

Ready to take your captions to the next level? Bookmark and refer to the Complete Guide to Captioned Videos.

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