Designers of DVDs have failed to profit from the lessons of previous media: Computer Software, Internet web pages, and even WAP phones. As a result, the DVD menu structure is getting more and more baroque, less and less usable, less pleasurable, less effective. It is time to take DVD design as seriously as we do web design. The field needs some discipline some attention to the User Experience, concern about accessibility for those with less than perfect sight and hearing, and some standardization of control and display formats.
(Version of Dec. 17, 2001: slightly modified from the version printed as an Alertbox in order to correct minor errors and include a section on accessibility. Originally printed as http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20011209.html)
Welcome to the world of DVDs. Nobody quite knows what the DVD movie medium is. We do know it supports hypertext and menus, with curser support, and click and point selection of alternatives. The first movies on DVDs were done well, in part because designers hadn't yet discovered the media, so things were left simple. But now, visual designers have somehow discovered the medium, and off we go, revisiting the horrors of the past. It seems that every time a new medium appears, the everyday users are forced to endure the worst sins of the previous media.
Memento, a fascinating movie, has a website-like presentation, filled with hidden words and hyperjumps to tantalizingly vague images that move about the screen. In theory, this is sophisticated hypertext, exploring the story subtleties in a non-linear fashion that mirrors the time distortion of the film. But the treatment does not live up to the theory. First, the film is actually linear, so the text fights the story it is trying to enhance. Didn't the designer listen to the interview with the director on the very same DVD disk? Yes, the film rearranges time, linearly, in reverse (well, almost). Christopher Nolan, the director, carefully points out in the interview that you cannot delete or rearrange any section without destroying the entire whole. In other words, the film - unlike the commentary -- is fixed in structure. But even if you think that this is not a flaw, that a commentary can differ from the movie, the more serious flaw is that hypertext just doesn't work on a DVD. The DVD is slow, not like a desktop PC. Finding another section on the disk takes time - measured in seconds - and so although the viewer at first marvels at the cleverness of the site, it does not take long for the marvel to deteriorate to disenchantment. "Do we have to keep going through this?" my family asked me when I patiently tried exploring the text. "Nope," I answered, and with relief went back to the main menu.
Now take the menus of DVD releases. Once they were simple. But as DVD releases became more and more popular, the visual designers took control. Now we have fancy, animated, complex menus. Moreover, the entrance and exits from the menu are now becoming elaborate productions, so the second or so it would take the DVD to find the new section is amplified by the several seconds of movie or animation excerpts, with sound. Slow is better, seems to be the rule, contradicting a fundamental principle of good user experience. Yes, slow can be good, yes, the introductions and transition scenes are interesting - the first time - but not time after time after time. Once is interesting. Twice is OK. But after that, it is an annoyance. An exercise in frustration.
One reader of an earlier version of this article said that the delays and unnecessary burdens of dealing with the menus, unwanted displays, and other inconveniences tempted him to try to break the encryption just so he could get to the movie more easily.
The menus themselves suffer badly from lack of standardization. Some DVDs require the viewer to move the cursor to the desired spot on the screen using the remote's directional control. The actual action is then activated by depressing the "select" key (called by different names on different remotes). But on some DVDs, the action is initiated as soon as the cursor is over the item. Many DVDs are inconsistent, in some sections working one way, in others working another way. Designers haven't figured out the cursor model yet either: In most DVDs, pushing the joystick (or arrow) control up will move the cursor up, but I have encountered some in which the cursor moves down. Sometimes the scene selection menu advances to the next contents page by a right or left arrow, sometimes with a special "next" item.
Worse, the menus are often illegible, with the text rendered in fuzzy graphics that are illegible even on my very large screen, High-Definition screen: I shudder to think of what they might look like on an everyday TV set. Several readers of the earlier report told me of their difficulties in simply reading the text on the screen.
There is nothing in the above comments that have not been noted over and over again in the design of printed material, software, and internet sites. DVD designers need to learn the lessons from these other media, and then to apply them intelligently to this new medium.
Six Points for DVD Design
1. Provide more information. There is no reason that the main menu page couldn't show the audio, video, language, and subscript settings on the main page, so the user wouldn't have to go to the pages and check them just to make sure they are what is wanted (or start playing the movie without checking, only to learn that the settings are wrong).
Why not state the duration of each item in the Special Menus, with a brief description, instead of the now, often cryptic titles, often chosen more for cleverness than for utility? Let the viewer know what to expect prior to selection.
2. Speed up the transitions. Rapid response improves the user experience. Unnecessary animations detract from the experience after the first showing. If an animated transition is desired, keep a counter so it can be shown the first time, but not thereafter (The DVD standards provide for 16 general variables in RAM for counters, arithmetic, etc.). In secondary information, especially biographies of the principals, viewers should be able to go through them all sequentially if they wish rather than have to return to the menu after each individual. In general, recognize that viewers may want easy ways to access the variety of material. (But don't force sequential access-augment the existing selection mechanisms.)
3. Provide feedback. This is elementary user-centered design: make it possible for the user to know what has been selected and what is happening. Make it easy to back out - to return to the previous spot - if the new page is not what was wanted.
4. Develop industry standards. The viewers must learn the convention for each new DVD for selection, for cursor movements, and for each component of the experience. These parts of the design are not the place for creativity; creativity can come about in other ways and places. People's lives are simplified through the use of standards for the common, frequent operations.
5. User test the result. Ask average viewers to do simple things, such as find a scene of interest. Ask them to change DVD settings, etc.
6. Design for accessibility. Make the designs accessible to those with less than perfect sight, hearing, language abilities (e.g., who don't speak English), or motor skills. Guess what: making your product accessible to the handicapped also makes it better for everyone. Note how closed caption TV - once thought of as solely for the deaf - is popular for watching shows in bars, waiting rooms, and other crowded locations where the sound is not desired or intelligible, even by the hearing. Making the print more legible helps everyone, not just those with poor vision, but also those standing at a distance, or paying less than full attention. Finally, intelligent use of audio and visual features makes the films work for those whose hearing or sight is impaired. And don't make the menu selection require extremely precise or rapid actions - this isn't a video game. Many of us are not so able, or even if we are, we are also juggling babies, food and drinks, reading matter, a variety of other remote controls, or other items in our hands while trying to use the DVD remote controller.
An excellent treatment of these issues is given in the World-Wide-Web consortium's web page on accessibility (http://www.w3.org/WAI) and in Joe Clark's discussion of DVD accessibility (http://www.joeclark.org/dvd). (Joe Clark is the tireless campaigner for equal access -- he properly chided me when my first release of this article failed to emphasize these concerns.) Also see the Nielsen Norman group's report on accessibility issues.