How to Design DVD Menus Like a Pro: Part 2, Structure

How a DVD menu is put together can be just as important as how it looks. A poorly executed DVD menu can be frustrating to understand and to navigate. This can result in a poor experience for the final user.

Due to the size and resolution of NTSC video, there is a relatively small area with which to work. This means that it is not desirable to try to squeeze too many buttons on one page. If your buttons have text only representations, I would recommend no more than 12 buttons on a page. If your buttons include a thumbnail of the video, much like chapter menus often do, then 6 should be your maximum. If you have more chapter selections than this, consider splitting the choices between multiple pages with “next” and “previous” buttons. Be sure not to make your text too small, as it will be hard to read.

Next, you have to program the directional controls. Most programs offer an automatic directional programming by trying to figure out the closest button in any given direction. I do not recommend this approach as sometimes the closest button is not the best choice. It is easier for a user to navigate if you minimize the need to change the direction button they are using on their remote. This means that if your menu choices are displayed from top bottom make sure that by continually hitting the down button on the remote that your user visits each choice, even though one of the choices may be slightly to the left or right. This way the user does not have to move their finger to another button on the remote and try to follow a navigation maze to their choice. The bottom choice should then jump back to the top when the down button is selected again. In this manner the final user really only needs one button to go to any choice they desire. This should also apply if, in general, your menu choices have a right to left flow.

Chapter selection menus, as well as any other menu that has a numerical order, should be navigated in that order. This means that no matter how you have the menu buttons arranged on the page, when you navigate right, or down, from chapter one it should go to chapter two. If your chapters are arranged in a grid, navigating right from the end of a row should send you to the first choice in the next row. Sometimes this is not directionally logical, but it make your menu much easier to navigate.

Now, lets discuss auto-action buttons. These can add to your menu that brings it up to the next level of functionality. Suppose you are navigating right to left through your chapter selections and you reach the last selection on your page. The next chapter selection is the first button on the next menu. You can take the right navigation from the last selection on the previous page and link it to a hidden auto-action button that takes the user to the next menu page and the next chapter selection button. This way the user only needs one button to navigate down the entire list of chapter selections.

Finally, here is a little known fact about how menus are put together. There are actually two ways to make a menu work. The first and most common is with a sub-picture. A sub-picture allows for certain areas of your menu to be highlighted with up to three colors. This can result in certain areas to be lit up or change color, or you can make a very simple bitmap image appear next to the menu choice. However, there is a second way that menus can work. You will find this way in use on the Lord of the Rings DVDs or the Loony Tune Gold collection of DVDs. Both these titles utilize many hidden auto-action buttons. Each selection actually takes you to another menu entirely. In this way you can make almost any change happen when navigating through your choices. Whole pictures can change or you can make a very complex image move next to the menu choice. The main reason that I rarely recommend using this second approach is that the menus are incredibly slow. Moving down a list of chapter sections can border on tedious. Menus designed like this can look very flashy, but at what price?

By keeping these few things in mind, you should be able to create a user friendly menu and look like a pro while doing it.

Kirk Peters is a Pittsburgh based multimedia programmer. He has had more than ten years experience developing multimedia applications for hundreds of local companies. He can be reached at 412-716-6585 or at