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Beyond Clever
Posted Feb 1, 2002 Print Version     Page 1of 3 next »
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When the 21st Century Gulliver awakens under a blanket of barriers to great DVD menu design, how can he move from mere cleverness to a user-centered approach, usable wherever DVDs are played?

February 2002 | With the advent of DVD production for small teams, many creative professionals are suddenly faced with a bewildering mesh of barriers to great product design. Perhaps if one of these restraints were to be encountered individually, it would be easier to brush away. But when the twenty-first century Gulliver awakens under a blanket of them, they can seem a bit overwhelming. After all, how many of us have experience in turning out products that look fantastic both on digital monitors and consumer TVs—and which work smoothly and intuitively using either a PC's mouse or a standalone DVD player's simple arrow keys?

Those of us accustomed to designing for the Web are in for a shock when confronted with the limitations of NTSC video (or the comparable international standards, PAL and SECAM). If the pixel resolution (about 330 pixels for broadcast NTSC) doesn't "get you," the potential for flickering pixels due to vertical interlacing will.

In addition, TV has a limited color gamut. NTSC collapses the three-dimensional RGB colorspace into a two-dimensional pseudo-color signal. While this may sound mystical, its implications are plain to even the most casual observer. NTSC color fidelity is especially threatening for highly saturated colors, with a particular antipathy towards bright red (a color that smears badly).

Oh, and lest we forget, we must also contend with another concession that the NTSC committee made long ago. In order to accommodate TV displays that didn't display the full broadcast image, NTSC established a "safe titling area." The resulting restrictions on the placement of DVD menu buttons are significant. A menu that works fine on a VGA monitor may result in off-screen buttons on some TVs. Table 1, "Elementary Checklist for DVD Usability" offers suggestions to help authors avoid some of the natural pitfalls of DVD design, particularly when working with the mixed media of computer monitors and television.

Table 1
Elementary Checklist for DVD Usability

Visual Effectiveness 
• Text: legible font family, large-size, high-color contrast [1]
• Background: grayer, darker, less-contrast
• Foreground: brighter, more colorful, higher-contrast
• General design: uncluttered • UI elements: unsurprising, conventional [2]
• Images: all must reinforce a simple theme
• Caution: the aspect ratio of graphics in the actual DVD may differ from the appearance of graphics during authoring!

Visual Consistency 
• Color: up to five or six signature colors predominate
• Menus: all use the signature palette
• Fonts: usually, no more than two or three signature fonts
• Font size: when possible, reuse the same font size
• Shapes: reuse similar shapes and sizes for objects

MPEG Compressibility
• Menu graphics: avoid sharp edges (applies also to video)
• Images: avoid images that rely on small details
• Video: avoid camerawork with too much motion NTSC CLARITY
• Graphics: avoid sharp edges (blur these if necessary)
• Lines: always blur single-pixel lines
• Color: avoid out-of-gamut colors (lower saturation if necessary)
• Text: use a chroma dam (a black or gray edge on all sides)
• Layout: all content within the safe-titling area
• Backgrounds: will lose a large margin to TV overscan

Arrow-Key Navigability 
• Buttons: aligned along horizontal rows or vertical columns
• Highlights: use background, mask, subpicture layers for buttons
• Selection: use substantial highlights on buttons to make selection obvious
• Mouseover: don't expect elaborate mouseover behavior on players • Persistence: don't expect "already visited" behavior in buttons

General Navigability 
• General design: keep it very simple and very obvious
• Menus: use as few as possible
• Returns: all menus need a Return button to the Top menu
• Web links: PC-only buttons will confuse DVD-player users

[1] Legibility precludes text angled from the horizontal!
[2] Buttons look like buttons, not seagulls or hats

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