DVD Menu Design: The Failures of Web Design Recreated Yet Again

by Don Norman on December 9, 2001

Summary: 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, and some standardization of control and display formats

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 and click. The first movies on DVDs were done well, in part because designers hadn't yet discovered the medium, 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). 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.

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 window model yet either, so that is some cases pushing the joystick (or arrow) control on the remote up moves the cursor up, in some cases it moves it down. Sometimes the scene selection menu advances to the next contents page by a right or left arrow, sometimes with a special "next" item.

This area needs to learn the lessons from other media, but apply them indigenously to this new medium.

  1. Make important states explicit. 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).
  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.).
  3. Provide more feedback so the user knows what has been selected and what is happening. Make it easy to back out -- return to the previous spot -- if the new page is not what was wanted.
  4. Develop industry standards for selection and cursor movements, perhaps for other parts of the experience. These parts of the design are not the place for creative excess; creativity can come about in other ways and places.
  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. Consider accessibility: the principles discussed in the NN Group's recent guidelines for making websites and intranets easier to use for users with disabilities also apply to DVDs.
  7. Provide more information. 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 informativeness? Do as book authors learn to do: use a clever title, with an informative subtitle (e.g.: "The Invisible Computer: Why good products can fail, the PC is so complex, and information appliances are the answer").

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