embedded software boot camp

Form Over Function and Battling with DVD Menus

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009 by

At the Embedded Systems Conference in Farnborough two weeks ago, I delivered my ‘Top Ten Usability Mistakes’ talk. The last item in the list of ten is the awful lack of respect shown for the user’s time in the experience of watching a DVD. They usually force you to watch some legal-eagle’s copyright notice, and then it might or might not be possible to fast forward the trailers for future releases. And then it sits at a menu. If I am setting up a Disney movie for my kids, I want to be able to press play and leave the room, just like I used to be able to do with a VCR.

One of the delegates pointed out that such frustrations actually encourage people to use pirate copies of the movie, since the bootleggers usually remove the stuff they know no one wants. In other words they set higher usability standards than the original content creators.

While the issue of wasting the user’s time was point number ten in my talk at the conference, I want to discuss a different aspect of the DVD experience in this blog. The design of the DVD menu is usually a triumph of form over function, which means it is nice to look at, but not so nice to use. The graphic design is usually impressive, but the blaze of colors makes it almost impossible to see which item is currently highlighted, so you are not sure what you will get when you press the play (or OK) button. A simpler layout, and less background color and movement, would have given us a better user experience. The bigger the budget, the flashier the menu and the harder it is to use! I think it is derived from a movie culture of having a passive audience, and they are just not used to the idea that the viewer may have to do something, or make a decision.

Even worse than the main menu is the scene selection menu – which usually shows a set of scenes as thumbnails, numbered 1 to 5 and then a number of choices to see thumbnails for 6-10, 11-15, 16-20 etc. . Having two types of selection is confusing – I would much prefer to have one set of scenes and use the left/right to scroll them, so if there are too many thumbnails to fit on the screen, I scroll to the one I want. This scrolling would chronologically move through the film, and I would not have to guess whether I want to go to the 11-15 set or the 16-20 set, which is a guess I usually get wrong.

Of course what they really need to do is show the number of the scene when you pause the movie, so that the scene numbers have some utility – some DVD players allow you access to this number but only after another button press that most users are not aware of.

The problem that is not addressed in the design of the DVD experience is how to resume watching the movie that you stopped watching yesterday. If the scene number was displayed when the DVD is paused then you could remember it – instead you have to look at the thumbnails and try to guess if you have seen the scene before. Yes, some DVD players have a resume function, but this seems to depend on the user pressing some mad key combination within 2 seconds of putting the disk in and I have always failed to get this feature to behave pleasantly on any DVD player I have owned. It also does not solve the problem if you move the disk from the player in one room to another (if you have to ask “Why?” Then you do not have kids).

Maybe part of the problem is that the experience is designed in part by the DVD format standard and partly by the DVD movie creator and partly by the DVD player, and while they all managed to agree on video and audio formats and compression techniques, it is harder to agree on, or even define, the most desirable user experience.

While I was travelling to the conference I called in on a friend, and while I was there, he received delivery of a prototype of a remote control, called Amulet, which he is developing. It works with Window Media Center. The unique thing about this remote is that it can pick up voice commands and use them to play music, video or other content on the PC (which is normally connected to your TV for this type of use).

I thought that this gadget would be an ideal third party tool to make scene selection easier. Since you could speak the scene number instead of moving the highlight from scene to scene. Alas the scene selection thumbnails seems to be buried in a part of the system that does not have any easy external API. Basically the platform designers never really considered it to be a platform where a third party may want to sit something on top of it. This makes it difficult to present the chapters, using the thumbnails, in a way not intended by the original DVD designer.

It may be a bit harsh to blame the original format designers for this. Should they have foreseen that DVDs might be played on a range of devices from PCs to game consoles and not just in dedicated DVD players. Also an API that would allow third party software to control the menus would widen the range of input devices possible. It is always a challenge to predict the variety of ways in which future developers may want to use the formats and protocols being designed today.

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