Saturday, March 3, 2007

DVD Menus - Oh, the horror

Since I haven't posted a rant about bad product design in the last twelve hours, I thought it was time to tackle something even more annoying than ringtones. Let's talk DVD menus and packaging. For those who can remember, think back to the dawn of the CD. It was such an improvement over LPs in so many ways, but the great miracle to me was not the sound quality or even the small size - it was the immediacy with which the CD would do your bidding. Want to skip ahead six tracks? No problem, and the CD case would almost always present the track listings clearly.

Why have we all just accepted that DVD menus and packaging design rarely do the same? I was confronted with an extreme example of this last night when I pulled out my unopened box of The Simpsons, Season 7 in order to watch the episode 22 short films about Springfield, which I was reminded of when I was playing for class a scene from 32 short films about Glenn Gould. (By the way, the Gould movie almost made it onto my favorite movie list, and it will certainly have a place on the soon-to-come honorable mention list [update: now available for viewing in a right margin near you].)

The problem was to determine which of the four discs included the episode I wanted. I was lucky that I had already determined from an online source (once again, the amazing Wikipedia) that the episode fell late in the season; one opens the hard-to-open box to find four discs with no episode information printed on them. There was also no episode list printed on the inside of the box, although all the titles were printed in a confusing circular pattern on the back of the box. There were three or four cute little "collectible" leaflets inside, one of which was designed to look like a newspaper and turned out to list all the episodes page by page. I don't think there was even a table of contents. I will say that the leaflet is perfectly designed to get lost as quickly as possible. If my toddler ever gets her hands on it, I'll never see it again.

Because I knew the 22 short films came towards the end of the season, I browsed through the back of the booklet until I was finally able to confirm that I needed Disc 4. A table of contents by Disc # should have been available on the back of the box, inside the box, and on each disc. I realize there might be some Simpsons fans who think this sort of game-playing is cute. I just want to find what I want fast and watch it.

In this case, the DVD menu wasn't too bad, although I remember a previous season of Simpsons DVDs in which one had to play a little 'spin the character' game even to get each disc menu to show up. But, as a general rule, I find DVD menus to be set up in a consistently annoying manner. Often it's hard to tell which item on a menu is selected because some menu designer doesn't want ugly bold underlines to mess up an artfully constructed menu scene. The process of clicking through multiple chapter screens is always too cumbersome. Then, my favorite thing to hate, are those horrible menu transitions. Do people really get excited when making a menu selection to watch the DVD pretend like it has to reenact some scene from the movie to get you from one menu to the next? I HATE those. And I haven't yet mentioned the eternal FBI warnings and the lengthy previews that are a constant feature of every kids' DVD.

I know there are workarounds for most of these things, but the point is that very little about the way DVDs are designed and packaged is set up to help the viewer get to where he/she wants to go as fast as possible. Imagine putting in a CD and first having to hear a little copyright speech, then a promo for some other CDs. Then, when you skip tracks on your Beatles CD, you have to hear some transitional guitar riff ("you say you want a revolution?") before getting to where you want to go. In short, why aren't DVDs designed more like CDs? I guess there are some who get a kick out of all these special features. I just want to be able to pop a disc in and find what I want as quickly as possible with as few clicks of the remote as possible. But maybe it's just me. I also don't get excited about Haydn's Creation.

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