Anime DVD menu usability

Samuel Marshall
Version 1.1 – 11 November 2002


Menus on anime DVDs, while better than in the past, still appear to be designed with little consideration for common usage patterns.

This document examines anime DVD menus from a usability perspective and suggests a ‘best practice’ template for the main menu. The main menu is most important because placing options on the main menu makes them instantly available.


1 • Assumed situation

For the purposes of this analysis we assume a ‘typical’ anime TV series DVD with 3 or more episodes.

The DVD has two audio tracks (Japanese and English), two subtitle tracks (full translation and signs-and-songs only), some unspecified extras, and trailers.

Most of the results, and the principles described, also apply to other types of anime disc.

2 • Usage analysis

An important step in creating a good design is to consider how people will use the menu – work out what they are looking to achieve most frequently and make that task as easy as possible.

I have no research budget, so there weren’t any user studies; all the information here comes from logical reasoning. This is not ideal.

2.1 User tasks

# Task User intention
P1 Play entire show Play the entire show (all episodes on the disc)
P2 Play single episode Play a single specific episode
P3 Play two or more episodes Watch several specific episodes (in order)
P4 Play chapter Watch a specific chapter rather than beginning from an episode start
L1 English audio Choose English audio, along with the song-and-sign subtitle track
L2 Japanese audio Choose Japanese audio, along with the subtitled translation
L3 English (no subs) Choose English audio, but with songs and signs left untranslated
L4 Japanese (raw) Choose Japanese audio, with no translation
L5 English (full subs) Choose English audio, with full translation subtitles
L6 Japanese (song-and-signs) Choose Japanese audio, with translation only for songs and onscreen text
E1 View extras User wants to view extra features
E2 View trailers User wants to view trailers

2.2 Task frequencies

Users in this table describes the people who are likely to use a feature. Frequency describes how often those people are likely to use it.

# Users Frequency Note
P1 Many Very frequent  
P2 Many Frequent  
P3 Many Very frequent  
P4 Some Infrequent Most people watch shows in episode blocks (at least one episode) rather than stopping midway through. They might occasionally want to view only a particular scene, but that isn’t general behaviour when watching a show.
L1 Dub viewers (many) Depends on disc Most discs default to English audio, so users do not need to select this option. However, if it isn’t immediately clear, some users may go through this selection just to make sure.
L2 Sub viewers (some) Very frequent Most discs default to English audio, so users need to specifically choose Japanese. Even if a disc defaults to Japanese or follows player preferences, users will probably go through this selection just to make sure, unless it is immediately clear which language is selected.
L3 Very few Rare Users watching English audio are unlikely to want to miss out on translation of onscreen text. If they do want to turn this off because it obscures visuals, they’re most likely to do this only for the opening/ending songs and not for more relevant text in the show, so they’d use the player’s subtitle button.
L4 Very few Frequent If a user is fluent in Japanese, they do not need translation and will wish to turn it off. Though some anime viewers outside Japan may know some Japanese, very few are actually fluent.
L5 Few Infrequent There are two good reasons for this selection: for deaf users who happen to be watching with somebody else who prefers the English audio (there are not many deaf users in the age group that buys most anime), and for users who want to check the accuracy of a dub translation (I know some people do this but I can’t imagine it being a major thing).
L6 Almost none Almost never There is almost no reason to watch a show in Japanese with translation only of random restricted elements.
E1 Most Infrequent Most users watch most extras only once.
E2 Most Infrequent Most users watch most trailers only once.

2.3 Task importance

Using the analysis of task frequency, we can list tasks in order of importance. Importance depends on the proportion of users who need the task, and the frequency for those users.

A quality design makes the most important tasks as easy as possible.

This table lists most important tasks first.

# Task
P1 Play entire show
P3 Play two or more episodes
P2 Play single episode
L1 Select English audio *
L2 Select Japanese audio
E1 View extras
E2 View trailers
L4 Japanese (no subs)
P4 Play chapter
L5 English (full subs)
L3 English (no subs)
L6 Japanese (song-and-sign subs)

* Whether task L1 is this important depends on whether English audio is the default for the disc and, if so, whether it is clear from the initial screen that English audio is selected

Because L6 is so unimportant, it may be excluded from further consideration; the incredibly small proportion of users who wish this option can select it using the DVD player’s subtitle button anyway. Having it on the menu is not a requirement.

3 • Domain analysis

DVD menus work in a particular manner. This needs be considered in order to make sure that the most important tasks are easy for the user.

There are also some general areas of the task where usability can be considered and improved.

3.1 Menu access delays

Menus sometimes appear after a delay (for animation). Users are probably prepared to put up with a small delay if it ‘looks cool’, but this delay should not be excessive.

Counterexample: In Pioneer’s Sailor Moon S, both the main menu and the language selection menu take ages to appear, and you can’t skip the delay.

Counterexample: In ADV’s Gasaraki, subtitle options are nested in a submenu of the Language menu, so choosing both language and subtitle options requires 4 menu transitions (main > lang, lang > sub, sub > lang, lang > main) instead of 2.

3.2 Control

DVD menus are controlled using two methods. Users with standalone DVD players generally control menus using four directional arrow buttons and a Select button. Users on PCs do have access to this scheme, but generally control menus by clicking on screen ‘hotspots’.

I am not aware of reliable statistics for the proportion of people using PCs to watch DVDs, but a total guess is that it might be around 5%; not high, but worth considering.

Lessons from button control

Button control imposes a number of restrictions on the visual layout of options.

Counterexample: In Bandai’s Escaflowne, the menu structure is laid out on a pentagon. It is unclear which direction you have to press to get where, and whether you have to use different buttons (e.g. switch from up/down to left/right) when you get part of the way around the shape.

Lessons from pointer control

Pointer control introduces more constraints.

3.3 Selection feedback

Both methods of control provide feedback on selections using some sort of indicator around the selected item (rendered as a DVD subpicture).

Counterexample: In Bandai’s Fancy Lala volume 1, try selecting an episode from the main menu. This is confusing because a small * appears to the side of the selected number – if you select episode 2, it reads ‘1   2 * 3   4   5’. Is episode 2 or 3 selected? They fixed this error in volume 2, where the selection * appears directly over the selected episode.

Counterexample: In at least one volume of Pioneer’s Trigun, some menus indicate a selected item by making the text red instead of black. Red text is also used elsewhere in the graphics, and it isn't clear whether the red or black text is selected.

3.4 Visual design

Good visual design can improve, and poor visual design hinder, menu usability.

Counterexample: In CPM’s Now and Then, Here and There, go to any submenu. The ‘main menu’ option is difficult to see at first, because it’s up at the top right whereas the menu options run down the left.

4 • Suggested menu template

Considering the domain requirements, it’s possible to suggest an example template which satisfies the basic requirement of good menu design – making the most important tasks easy.

This is not the only good menu structure; there are many possible solutions, and this is only one of them.

4.1 Goals

The goal of this design is to make the most important tasks (P1, P3, P2, L1, and L2) as easy as possible. This is achieved by placing all those tasks on the main menu, thus keeping menu-changing to a minimum (none). Less important tasks are pushed to other screens.

4.2 Design diagram

This is a diagram, not a picture of an actual menu.

Design for typical DVD menu



Action Result
Play all Begins playing episode 1
Any episode button Begins playing that episode; does not return to main menu when episode finishes unless it’s the last one. Note that episode numbers should begin with 6 for the second volume, etc.
Japanese Selects Japanese language, English subtitles without leaving menu
English Selects English language, song subtitles without leaving menu
Other Accesses submenu with full range of audio/subtitle options
Scene select Goes to submenu for selection of individual scenes within each episode
Extras Goes to submenu for selection of extras and trailers (if there are a lot, or if desired, then an extra ‘trailers’ option could be included)

Key features


There are quite a few options on this menu. For visual reasons, it might be desirable to reduce the count in some cases.

The following options could go:

Also, the Play All button could be removed, since it does the same as the episode 1 button. However, that option should remain more prominent than others. Here are some solutions:

These have the advantage of helping the user understand that selecting an episode will not return to the menu once the episode plays, or take you to a scene select screen.

5 • Evaluation

We measure the quality of this menu by comparing the effort required for important tasks with menus from a typical disc.

I’ve chosen ADV’s Princess Nine (volume 6) for comparison because it happened to be close at hand; it is a quality disc with good menus and demonstrates current good practice. ADV in general do a good job with their menus and some releases are even better than Princess Nine. But there is still room for improvement.

The example scenarios are in order of probability (most likely first), based on the same analysis done earlier.

Scenario User effort
This design Princess Nine
Dub viewer watches whole disc (L1,P1)
Button presses: 1
User presses Enter.
(In the worst case, the user might not be certain that selecting episode 1 will achieve the desired result, so presses Up then Enter (2). This problem could be reduced by making ‘Play All’ and episode 1 the same button, with appropriate visual indication.)
Mouse clicks: 1
Menu transitions: 0
Button presses: 1
User presses Enter.
Mouse clicks: 1
Menu transitions: 0
Dub viewer watches from episode 3 onward (L1,P3)
Button presses: 3
User presses Right, Right, Enter.
Mouse clicks: 1
Menu transitions: 0
Button presses: 5
User presses Down, Enter, Right, Right, Enter.
Mouse clicks: 2
Menu transitions: 1
Sub viewer watches whole disc (L2,P1)
Button presses: 4
User presses Down, Enter, Up, Enter.
(Again, in the worst case, the user might not be certain that selecting episode 1 will achieve the desired result, so presses Up once more then Enter (5).)
Mouse clicks: 2
User clicks Japanese, then clicks Play All.
Menu transitions: 0.5
The menu reload (to show the new selected language) may technically be a menu transition as far as the DVD system is concerned and may take a little time, but does not require the user to comprehend a new menu.
Button presses: 11
User presses Down, Down, Down, Enter, Down, Enter, Enter, Up, Up, Up, Enter.
Mouse clicks: 4
User clicks Languages, Japanese, Main, Play
Menu transitions: 2
Sub viewer watches from episode 3 onward (L2,P3)
Button presses: 6
User presses Down, Enter, Up, Right, Right, Enter.
Mouse clicks: 2
User clicks Japanese, then clicks episode 3.
Menu transitions: 0.5
Button presses: 13
User presses Down, Down, Down, Enter, Down, Enter, Enter, Up, Up, Enter, Right, Right, Enter.
Mouse clicks: 5
User clicks Languages, Japanese, Main, Episodes, episode 3.
Menu transitions: 2

One of the most likely cases (a dub viewer wants to watch the entire disc) is already handled correctly in the Princess Nine menu. The other likely scenarios are all dealt with better using the menu template shown in this report.

6 • Summary

Considering how people will use DVD menus can help us understand how to improve those menus. The lessons from this report could be applied to real anime DVDs.

Current anime DVD menus are particularly poor in the area of language selection (given that a significant proportion of viewers will reliably want to change language on almost every viewing).

6.1 Specific points

These are my own opinions about the most important individual points to take on board.

The most important factor is the method of language selection. A significant proportion of users need to either change, or verify, their language selection every time they play a disc. This means that language selection should be available on the same screen as the play button. It is not necessary to include full language selection options on that screen, only the two main ones.

Another issue is episode selection. Because many users do not always watch an entire disc at once, the task ‘play from episode 3 onwards’ is a common one and must not be obstructed. Many discs make this harder by requiring you to use a submenu (like Image’s Hyper Police) or even two levels of submenu (like Bandai’s Cowboy Bebop) in order to play the chosen episode. Some discs obstruct this even further by returning you to the menu after the chosen episode has finished, rather than letting you continue directly with the next episode.

In a related issue, language selection should not automatically begin playing the disc, even though this might seem like it saves effort. Again, this makes life significantly more difficult for people who do not watch an entire disc at once.

Discs should accept player defaults (i.e. if you set your player to Japanese it should default to Japanese w/ English subtitles). However there is little point doing this unless you also display language selection on the main menu; so many discs ignore the defaults that users will have to check, even if you get it right. Accepting defaults is not a general solution, because not all players allow these settings to be configured and not all users understand how to configure them.


Want to contact me about this? Please email quen at leafdigital dot com.