Yale C/AIM Web Style Guide



Visual design I

Visual design II

Evolving multimedia

The Evolving Interface of Multimedia
Patrick J. Lynch, MS

Yale Center for Advanced Instructional Media
Published 1994, Syllabus Magazine, 8(3):48-50.

Graphic user interfaces now completely dominate the personal computer marketplace. But ironically, just as the Macintosh and Windows interfaces are becoming more similar to each other, a distinct style of multimedia interface is emerging to challenge both the Macintosh and Microsoft Windows for the ownership of your screen. By removing the menubar and taking over the whole computer screen, most of today's multimedia CD-ROM interfaces simply abandon both the Macintosh and Windows interfaces, substituting intense visuals, video clips, and animations for the more functional (if more mundane) windows, pull-down menus, and standard buttons of the mainstream graphic interfaces. The differences between most multimedia CD-ROM interfaces and those seen in mainstream Mac and Windows applications represent much more than an attempt to enliven the computer screen with visual sensation instead of information. In drawing their screen metaphors and graphic design from the worlds of television, video games, and film, many multimedia producers have (consciously or unconsciously) adopted a paradigm for interacting with computers that is fundamentally different from that envisioned by the designers of today's Mac and Windows graphic interfaces. The basic question in multimedia publication design is this: are tomorrow's multimedia computers going to behave like televisions with keyboards, or will we treat them more like personal computers that can also deliver complex audiovisuals?
Today's Mac and Windows graphic interfaces grew out of attempts to provide the computer user with a wide range of easily accessible and understandable choices when interacting with a computer. Although your first graphic interface may take some effort to learn (the ease of use claims for graphic interfaces have always been vastly overstated), once you are familiar with the Macintosh or Windows GUI you can cope with very complex interactive environments as long your software consistently stays within the basic interface guidelines of the operating system.
While the graphics of multimedia may be rich, the opportunities for interactions and navigation in most multimedia programs are often surprisingly limited. Compared to the average word processing program or spreadsheet most multimedia programs offer pathetically few choices to the multimedia user. For example, Microsoft Word (Mac or Windows version) offers almost 120 direct menu choices and another 50 options on graphic tool bar. If you count the indirect options available through the dialog boxes opened by most menu items, Word actually offers hundreds of opportunities for choice and interaction. By contrast, popular multimedia CD-ROMs like Alice to Ocean rarely offer the user more than six to ten potential choices at any time. In most screens the only choice is to go on, or return to a graphic "menu" or "contents" that lists a half dozen options. And graphic menus are so slow! Forcing the user to rely on graphic menu screens instead of standard GUI menu bars and pull-down menus only exaggerates the slow response time of the CD-ROM player. Instead of the quick snap of a pull-down menu, the user sits watching a watch or hourglass cursor while the CD-ROM drive desperately grinds out another visually beautiful but functionally impoverished menu screen (300K of drop-dead graphics, .01K of navigation options).
The passive, linear medium of television is the worst possible metaphor for a truely interactive medium, and interactive cable systems will never offer tha range of sophisticated fucntionality and interaction we now expect from desktop computers. Only the computer, with its almost infintely plastic range of interface behaviors and interactive possiblities can deliver the type of complex audiovisual environments envisioned by today's multimedia developers. Multimedia computers are not televisions with keyboards!

The evolution of standards
The marketplace for electronic publications is rapidly maturing, and CD-ROM's will shortly lose their novelty and become a routine source of information for computer users and educators. As this happens the publishing industry will begin to impose minimum standards for organization and useability for electronic publications comparable to those seen in conventional (paper-based) publishing. Currently there is no Chicago Manual of Style to consult when constructing a multimedia CD-ROM. However, the interface design guidelines for the Macintosh and Windows operating systems offer a ready framework for the construction of publications that can incorporate complex levels of interactivity and choice without overwhelming the user. The users of Mac or Windows systems already know how to use their computers, but multimedia programs typically remove the standard interface and force them to re-learn basic navigation with every new CD-ROM title they open. Beautiful photographs and digital videos are not a substitute for quick, understandable document organization and familiar graphic interface conventions. The lessons from the sales of mainstream "office productivity" software are clear: non-standard interfaces are quickly driven out of the market. CD-ROM readers will increasingly resent multimedia documents that wipe away the menubars, windows and desktops of their familiar computing environment, only to impose a slow, inconsistent, and patronizing level of interactivity.
While multimedia CD-ROM's are rapidly becoming routine in mainstream publishing, the creation of multimedia tools is still dominated by software programmers who have little experience with or understanding of editorial process, document design, graphic design, or publication management. Basic provisions for automated indexing and table-of-contents generation, control of versioning and text edits, hot links to multimedia content databases, multi-user server-based authoring for workgroups, and sophisticated overview tools for viewing the broad outlines of project structure are all hampering the development of editorial workgroups for multimedia publishing. Ironically, many of these same editorial management features have been available for some time to users of PageMaker and Quark XPress. Adobe has begun to move toward implementing of it's Acrobat "PDF" file format for multimedia electronic documents in mainstream applications like Adobe Illustrator and Aldus PageMaker (now also owned by Adobe). If the makers of multimedia authoring don't wake up and get serious about the editorial needs of publishers they may find that two years from now their main competitors for CD-ROM authoring will be Adobe PageMaker and Quark XPress. Imagine a single document that could provide full cross-platform interactive multimedia functionality on the computer screen AND be could printed on paper for conventional publication that would be real multi-media and would signal the advent of mature multimedia publishing tools.
The creators of the currently available authoring tools for multimedia have rarely put much thought or effort into tools for interface design or document organization. The dominant use for authoring tools is in audiovisual presentations for business and authoring for CD-ROM publications that emphasize media audiovisual glitz over information. Unfortunately, it is rare to find non-fiction "edutainment" CD-ROM titles that offer anywhere near the depth or organization of content that books on the same topics offer. This could be because the CD-ROM buying public is still infatuated with the novelty of electronic documents. However, it won't take long to for people to begin asking why they are expected to pay double or triple the price of a book for CD-ROM based information that often has no index, no table of contents, no page numbers or other systems to mark the location of particular bits of information, and only the most limited range of interactive functionality.

Templates for multimedia authoring
The design of multimedia documents is rapidly evolving, but most new users of multimedia authoring tools are immediately stymied by the need to reinvent the whole business of electronic document design before they ever get down to the task of assembling their content with the authoring software. It's odd that the makers of most multimedia authoring tools have never offered users a range of ready-made templates for multimedia content similar to the basic document templates that have been available for years in desktop publishing. Most buyers of multimedia authoring tools have no ambition to become experts multimedia producers, graphic designers, or human interface experts they just want to deliver a given set of information in a professional and efficient manner. These users would benefit enormously from professionally-designed templates that have most of the screen layout, document structure, and basic scripting of the user interface already completed and ready to customize. Various styles of multimedia interfaces could be accommodated in different templates, from mainstream menu-and-window driven Mac or Windows interfaces to simple point-and-click interfaces with graphic menu screens that users could customize very quickly for their own projects.

Where are the publishers?
So far the multimedia marketplace has been dominated by software developers, game designers, and audiovisual producers, yet we are continually told that the largest future impact of multimedia will be in the publication and dissemination of information that is now printed on paper. It's the publishing industry that will eventually have the biggest stake in the success of electronic publishing, yet the industry seems to have had virtually no impact on the development and future of authoring tools or interface standards for electronic information. The crucial multimedia authoring features for publishers will center around networked access to information, and the design of consistent, familiar user interfaces to vast commercial on-line libraries of information. In a world that will soon be dominated by high speed fiber-optic networks linking every home and business, CD-ROM will fade to insignificance as a publication medium. Networked multimedia documents produced by publishers will need to be assembled by teams of authors, audiovisual producers, and other media and software professionals, using authoring systems based on a consistent user interface and file structure across the whole range of the editorial process, from the personal computers of individual authors to the supercomputer-based file servers that will actually "publish" the edited final document. Interface design will be the crucial competitive arena on-line publications will only be successful if users can find the information they want quickly and easily, using graphic interfaces derived from mainstream Mac or Windows standards.
As the multimedia authoring market continues to mature, title construction tools that support the full range of Macintosh and Windows interface behaviors will be essential. As mentioned last month in this column, Asymetrix's ToolBook and Allegiant's SuperCard are showing welcome signs that authoring tool makers are beginning (just barely) to look beyond basic graphics and media features and are starting to tackle the more important job of providing serious content developers with sophisticated editorial environments that support the mainstream graphic user interfaces.
Copyright 1997 P. Lynch and S. Horton,
   all rights reserved. Yale University   Revised January 1997.