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Bad User Interface of the Week: The DVD

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DVDs are now fairly ubiquitous, with DVD players costing less than the discs. They also make a very good case study on how not to design a system. In the first of a series of bad UI articles, David Chisnall highlights a bad user interface decision that has been made by a product design or development team.
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This is the first in the bad UI series, so some explanation is probably in order. Each week, this column will highlight a bad user interface decision that has been made by a product. Some of these will be directly taken from the computer industry, some from elsewhere. This week’s column falls into the second category. DVDs are now fairly ubiquitous, with DVD players costing less than the discs. They also make a very good case study on how not to design a system.

The Problem with DVDs

I own quite a few DVDs. I also own quite a few CDs. Both look quite similar, but when you put them in the player, you get very different behaviors. When you put a CD into a CD player, it plays music. This seems fairly reasonable, because there isn’t much else you can do with a CD unless you rip it to a computer’s hard disk (in which case, you are no longer dealing with the CD directly).

When you put the DVD into a DVD player, the standard behavior is less well-defined. Some of the older DVDs I own—from the era where things like subtitles and surround sound were listed as "special features"—play the film. Some slightly newer ones play some kind of flashy introduction (which looked dated within a year of release) and then go to the menu. The newest ones tell me that copyright infringement is illegal, suggest a load of other films I might want to buy, and then go to the menu.

The first thing to notice about this insertion behavior is the lack of consistency. This is more the fault of the DVD standard than the individual discs. No single behavior was mandated, so individual studios picked their own favorite. A user who puts a new DVD in the player has no way of knowing what to expect when they press Play.

The second thing to notice is that, as studios became more familiar with the capabilities of the format, the user experience deteriorated. Think for a second about what the user wants to do when he inserts a DVD into a player. Most of the time, he wants to watch the film. With old VHS cassettes, this was about the only thing you could do, so it was the default behavior. With early DVDs, the same was true. At some point along the line, the behavior changed to going to the menu.

Why is going to the menu such a bad initial behavior? For two reasons:

  • Any action requires a button to press. If all you wanted to do was watch the movie, then you are still required to press the "yes, I actually did put this film in my player in order to watch the film" button.
  • Every single DVD remote has a Menu button. You can always get to the menu in a single button press. Because you start on the menu, however, the selected option has to be "Play Film," because this is what the user almost always wants to do. If the movie started playing automatically, then the default option in the menu could be to play special features.

By making this small change, we turn playing the film from a one-button action into a zero-button action, but we don’t make accessing the special features any harder. Now, getting the special features requires you to press Menu, then Enter, where previously it required you to press Down (or Across, depending on the menu layout) and then Enter. Out most common action is easier, and our alternative action is less hard.

I am going to ignore sound and language selection options in the menu; they shouldn’t even be there because the DVD specification requires audio and subtitle language to be configurable in the player. The disc should just read them from the player, not require the user to make the same choice every time.

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