December 17, 2001
New Medium, Same Complaints DVD Menu Design: The Failures of Web Design Recreated Yet Again by Dr. Donald A. Norman (of Nielsen Norman Group fame) : The first time I saw this, I didn't even realize that it wasn't written by Jacob Nielson. I guess they're partners for a reason - Norman writes much the same way that Nielson does, and with the same interface philosophy. This time they're applying the same old boring usability guidelines to DVDs. But just because they are the same doesn't mean they are useless - DVD menus are getting to be ridiculously and unnecessarily complex. There is something to be said for the artistic merit of the menu scheme, but most of the time it ends up being obnoxious (especially upon repeated viewings of the film). Its surprising that most DVDs haven't learned from the mistakes of other mediums. In fact, I'm going to take this opportunity to bitch about DVDs - their interfaces and their content.

  • Animated Menus : Animated entrance and exit sequences are becoming more and more obnoxious. On occasion, I'll run across a DVD that has nice looking sequences, but they are definitely a rarity. I don't need to see a 3 second clip of the movie when all I'm trying to do is turn the commentary on. And Animated Menus don't count as a "Special" Feature.
  • Extra Features :
    • One suggestion mentioned in the above article is to state the duration of each item in the Special Menus, along with a brief description instead of the now, often cryptic titles, often chosen more for cleverness than for informativeness (even more annoying: when the cryptic titles mentioned on the DVD sleeve are different than what actually appears on the disc!).
    • If you have a series of short 1 minute pieces, string them together into a single 20 minute mini-documentary with skippable chapters instead of making me click through each and every one. For example, on the T2: Ultimate Edition, there are something like 50 short pieces concerning makeup, F/X, etc... that are ungodly difficult to navigate.
    • A fifteen minute promotional film consisting of 10 minutes of clips from the film does not count as a documentary.
  • Commentary : A good commentary track is a gem, and I realize that directors like Stanley Kubrick can't be troubled to sit down and talk about their movies (not to mention that he's dead). But even if they can't reanimate Kubrick's corpse, they should be able find someone else to do a good, insightful commentary. Two excellent examples: the commentary by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck on the Seven Samurai DVD and the commentary by Roger Ebert on the Dark City DVD. Both are well done and very interesting, especially in the case of Seven Samurai, which is one of those movies that demands a good commentary (and is one of the few that gets it). I want to see more of this because while it is interesting to hear about the filmmaker's perspective, works of art often take on a life of their own and move beyond anything the filmmaker originally intended.
Don't get me wrong, I love DVDs. I love the quality and all the extra content, but its hard not to complain when only some good movies (and even some bad movies) get nice DVD treatment.
Posted by Mark at 02:39 PM
October 09, 2001
The Fifty Nine Story Crisis In 1978, William J. LeMessurier, one of the nation's leading structural engineers, received a phone call from an engineering student in New Jersey. The young man was tasked with writing a paper about the unique design of the Citicorp tower in New York. The building's dramatic design was necessitated by the placement of a church. Rather than tear down the church, the designers, Hugh Stubbins and Bill LeMessurier, set their fifty-nine-story tower on four massive, nine-story-high stilts, and positioned them at the center of each side rather than at each corner. This daring scheme allowed the designers to cantilever the building's four corners, allowing room for the church beneath the northwest side.

Thanks to the prodding of the student (whose name was lost in the swirl of subsequent events), LeMessurier discovered a subtle conceptual error in the design of the building's wind braces; they were unusually sensitive to certain kinds of winds known as quartering winds. This alone wasn't cause for worry, as the wind braces would absorb the extra load under normal circumstances. But the circumstances were not normal. Apparently, there had been a crucial change during their manufacture (the braces were fastened together with bolts instead of welds, as welds are generally considered to be stronger than necessary and overly expensive; furthermore the contractors had interpreted the New York building code in such a way as to exempt many of the tower's diagonal braces from loadbearing calculations, so they had used far too few bolts.) which multiplied the strain produced by quartering winds. Statistically, the possibility of a storm severe enough to tear the joint apart was once every sixteen years (what meteorologists call a sixteen year storm). This was alarmingly frequent. To further complicate matters, hurricane season was fast approaching.

The potential for a complete catastrophic failure was there, and because the building was located in Manhattan, the danger applied to nearly the entire city. The fall of the Citicorp building would likely cause a domino effect, wreaking a devestating toll of destruction in New York.

The story of this oversight, though amazing, is dwarfed by the series of events that led to the building's eventual structural integrity. To avert disaster, LeMessurier quickly and bravely blew the whistle - on himself. LeMessurier and other experts immediately drew up a plan in which workers would reinforce the joints by welding heavy steel plates over them.

Astonishingly, just after Citicorp issued a bland and uninformative press release, all of the major newspapers in New York went on strike. This fortuitous turn of events allowed Citicorp to save face and avoid any potential embarrassment. Construction began immediately, with builders and welders working from 5 p.m. until 4 a.m. to apply the steel "band-aids" to the ailing joints. They build plywood boxes around the joints, so as not to disturb the tenants, who remained largely oblivious to the seriousness of the problem.

Instead of lawsuits and public panic, the Citicorp crisis was met with efficient teamwork and a swift solution. In the end, LeMessurier's reputation was enhanced for his courageous honesty, and the story of Citicorp's building is now a textbook example of how to respond to a high-profile, potentially disastrous problem.

Most of this information came from a New Yorker article by Joe Morgenstern (published May 29, 1995) . It's a fascinating story, and I found myself thinking about it during the tragedies of September 11. What if those towers had toppled over in Manhattan? Fortunately, the WTC towers were extremely well designed - they didn't even noticeably rock when the planes hit - and when they did come down, they collapsed in on themselves. They would still be standing today too, if it wasn't for the intense heat that weakened the steel supports.
Posted by Mark at 08:04 AM