Philosophy of ZOOOOS

by Billy Pittard on July 17, 2009

ZOOOOS is a system for controlling interactive media – particularly DVD. But why do we need ZOOOOS? Doesn’t DVD already have a control system? Yes, every DVD player comes with a remote control. The problem is that DVD remote controls and in many cases DVDs themselves are excessively complicated and this greatly diminishes usability and user satisfaction. ZOOOOS unleashes the capability of DVD to become a highly interactive medium that is easy and fun to use.

Why isn’t DVD already more interactive?

It starts with the fact that most people (movie studios included) primarily consider DVD to be a replacement for VHS tape, with little consideration given to its interactive capabilities. Since DVD was introduced in 1997, it has been used mainly as a better version of VHS tape for movies. The industry and the marketplace is now conditioned to think of DVD in this way. Furthermore, movies on DVD have become such an unexpectedly huge financial success for the studios that it creates fear to tamper with such success by making DVDs more interactive. While many movie DVDs contain interactive “bonus materials,” they are rarely well-funded or well-developed. Interactive DVDs simply have not been considered to be very important.

Secondly, it takes a while for any new medium to become understood and used well. The Internet is a handy example. Compare Google with Excite. Excite had a huge head-start with lots of cash behind it. Excite also had one of the most cluttered sites on the Internet. Geeks may have liked all those “features” but regular people found the uncluttered simplicity of Google to be far more appealing. The rest is history. Desktop publishing is another example. Remember all of that horribly ugly advertising that showed up everywhere when desktop publishing first arrived. Eventually skills levels and understanding of what makes good design prevailed – but it took a while. Every medium evolves – DVD included.

The third reason DVD interactivity is so bad is remote control design. DVD remotes typically have between forty and seventy tiny, poorly labeled buttons (most of which people never use), the things the buttons do are unclear and confusing, but worst of all, buttons that appear to be identical on different manufacturers remote controls do different things. No wonder it has been hard for interactivity to be embraced on DVDs! There are two main reasons for these shortcomings. First, the official specifications for DVD are not entirely specific when it comes to remote controls and different manufacturers interpret them differently. Second, most remote controls are designed by engineers – the same engineers who brought us the blinking 12:00 on our VHS machines. Over the last few decades, manufacturers have typically placed more value on “features” than on usability by normal people. In his brilliant book The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman calls this phenomenon “creeping featurism”.

So why hasn’t somebody smart like the studios or Sony already figured out that there is a big problem here and solved it? Hollywood studios and big corporations are too departmentalized to even be able to identify this problem, let alone imagine that it could be solved. The solution requires coordination between hardware design, content production, content conceptualization, DVD authoring, and marketing. The nature of innovation is that it usually happens where things overlap – and there’s not much overlap in big organizations. Corporate culture makes it very hard for anything that crosses department lines to happen. The real solution to the problem involves too many disciplines for a corporate environment to be able to easily address it. Bottom line: Innovation happens with individuals – not corporations.

Interaction Design

It hasn’t been all that long that we have had media that is interactive (as compared to non-interactive media like books, movies, and television). Our most ubiquitous interactive medium, the World Wide Web has been with us for less than ten years. There are still very few people who truly understand interaction design. Many of the people who are in a position to influence interaction design come from a more technical perspective rather than a humanistic one. The result is a lot of awkward interactive stuff – and a lot of confusion in the marketplace.

Interaction design comes down to three big things:

  1. the capabilities of the platform
  2. interface design
  3. the physical and sensory nature of the medium

You have to start with what the platform can actually do, and what it can do well. Be careful of transferring expectations of one platform onto another. As with anything, you find out what you can do well, with what you have to work with and you make the best of it. And you avoid doing what you can’t do so well. Just like life. DVD happens to do an outstanding job of playing video and audio, but it does not respond as instantaneously as most interactive media – so you work with that rather than against it. With every medium, it is vital to design specifically for that medium.

Interface design is where you make it as easy as possible for people to control the system. And you really have to emphasize the “people” aspect. Think of interface characteristics as tools. Techies tend to want to load up interfaces with lots of specialized tools. But imagine yourself cooking in your kitchen. Do you want to have every one of your special tools out on the counter? Or do you find it works better to have just a few of your more basic tools at hand? The same holds true with interface design. Those seventy-button remotes are loaded with special tools that mostly get in the way and make it hard for you to find the few tools you really need.

Finally, interaction design must consider the physical and sensory nature of the current medium. A computer experience is completely different from a TV experience is completely different from a GameBoy experience. The size, resolution and frame rate of the screen are critical factors, as is the physical/ergonomic relationship users have with the screen and its controls. The quality of the sound is also important.

Ultimately all of these things converge to define the user experience.

The ZOOOOS Philosophy

The goal of designing ZOOOOS was to create the absolute simplest interface possible to control interactive media. During the process I pared down the elements until I went too far and I pulled back until I had arrived at the ideal balance that allowed a rich interactive experience with the least amount of controls and the least amount of input required by the user. As Einstein is quoted: “Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

There are two fundamental controls that users require when interacting with DVD.

  1. selecting items from the screen
  2. general navigation (going forward, backward, and getting back to the menu)

Selecting Items from the Screen

Since the TV experience is about leaning back in your chair and not dealing with a lot of complexity on the screen, there should be relatively few things to select from on the screen. Since there should be only a few selectable items on the screen, cursor-based navigation is overkill and actually makes the task of choosing more complex than it needs to be. Therefore, a few potentially selectable items on the screen could be more easily selected by an individual button for each item.

The ZOOOOS solution is to use four Direct-Select® buttons. The four buttons are each a different color. The colors are selected to work well on a TV screen. The user is given an intuitive method for selecting items from the screen by placing graphic icons that look very much like the buttons on the remote, adjacent to selectable items on the screen. The buttons are given an oval shape to give them a little bit of character, but not so much as to imply any unintended meaning. The buttons and their screen icons are surrounded by a black outline to help them stand out against any color background on the screen and to give them a little more recognizable character while keeping them visually simple.

The four Direct-Select® buttons are positioned in a horizontal row on the controller to minimize any implied meaning to their relative positions. This allows them to have maximum flexibility as to how they are positioned on the screen.

Four buttons were used because this number is enough to give the user a variety of possible selections, but just enough to keep the interface as simple as possible. Three buttons are too few and five are more than necessary.

The Direct-Select® system allows users to make selections from the screen with one button click. Whereas a cursor-based system requires the user to navigate the cursor to the desired item with up-down-right-left buttons until the desired item is highlighted, and then the user must press the “enter” button to activate their selection. Cursor-based selection requires more button clicks and more complex navigation, so it requires more work, more patience and more manual dexterity on the part of the user.

A sample screen shot showing Direct-Select icons.

General Navigation

ZOOOOS has a second set of buttons for general navigation. These buttons are grouped away from the colored Direct-Select® buttons, and they are given a colorless look to further differentiate them. These buttons allow the user to navigate at a higher level than making selections from the screen. They allow the user to exit a current activity and return to a menu. They allow a user to jump to the next item or previous item in a series of items, such as pages in a book. They also allow a user to repeat the current item, which can be very useful in game play and learning activities.

The specialized “back” and “repeat” buttons in the ZOOOOS interface solve a very awkward problem with the standard DVD interface and standard DVD remotes. Some manufacturers have interpreted “back” to take the user to the beginning of the current section, while other manufacturers have interpreted it to take the user to the beginning of the previous section. This makes it very difficult to design interactive experiences on DVDs. ZOOOOS solves this problem by creating dedicated buttons that relate to special programming on the DVD to do exactly the same thing on every DVD player. The “back” button takes the user to the beginning of the previous section, and the “repeat” button takes the user to the beginning of the current section. No confusion, consistent performance – no matter what brand of DVD player.

The ZOOOOS protocol also includes a special “menu” button on the remote. Standard remotes often have multiple “menu” buttons such as “menu,” “top menu,” and “DVD menu” as well as other menu-like buttons such as “title,” “program,” and “display.” This obviously leads to a lot of confusion for users. ZOOOOS’ single “menu” button is given the metaphorical icon of a house to represent “home” as an easily understandable way for users to get out of any part of the DVD and back to a menu. To users we can say “If you are ever lost or confused, just go home.”

The ZOOOOS protocol specifies that menus should be arranged hierarchically so that users can always step back though any number of menus always moving toward the main menu of the disc.

Consistent User Experience

The consistent arrangement of content and menus specified by the ZOOOOS protocol means that users will have a consistent experience from title to title and from machine to machine. This is similar to one of the ideas behind the Macintosh computer where the same basic commands and interface are used on all Macintosh software, thus making a better experience for the user.

The ZOOOOS Controller

The essence of the ZOOOOS controller is a minimum number of buttons that are intuitively understandable.

The number of buttons is kept to a minimum by eliminating any buttons that are not concerned with interacting with the content on the DVD. All other controls such as power, volume, etc. are left off of the ZOOOOS controller. The result is a hand-held controller that has no extraneous buttons that might get in the way of the user having the best experience interacting with DVD content.

ZOOOOS’ buttons are very large when compared to standard remotes. This allows the buttons to be seen more easily in the darkened rooms where DVDs are often viewed. The user is able to find and access buttons quickly and easily with no fumbling.

The ZOOOOS controller looks completely different from other remote controls. ZOOOOS looks like fun, whereas a standard remote with its fifty identical, poorly labeled buttons looks like work. The unique appearance of the ZOOOOS remote also helps it stand out in the typical pile of remotes most people have in their homes.

Low Cost

The final basic concept behind ZOOOOS is low cost. All of the ideas behind ZOOOOS were developed with a goal of keeping the cost of the controller as low as possible for the consumer. The low-cost strategy lowers objections and barriers that might otherwise diminish the purchase appeal of ZOOOOS DVDs. Low cost also fits the current market perception that DVD players should be low cost.

Since the ZOOOOS system is designed to work with any current DVD player, it creates additional value for consumers.

On a competitive level, ZOOOOS is very likely to be the lowest cost of any emerging interactive DVD systems.

Branding

The name “ZOOOOS” was created by adding the “Z” and the “S” to the four “O’s” of the four Direct-Select buttons. Having a product name that is indelibly linked to the product is a unique strength.

The word ZOOOOS is pronounced like “Zeus,” king of the ancient Greeks gods. Not a bad association. Promotionally, we may want to use a more modern pronunciation reference and say “ZOOOOS rhymes with JUICE.”

ZOOOOS is essentially a platform, like PlayStation 2 and X-Box are platforms. As with those game platforms, ZOOOOS includes a hardware controller and a series of individual titles that work and only with our particular hardware.

The ZOOOOS logo lends itself extremely well to the type of platform-line branding that consumers recognize for popular platforms

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