Why Multimedia Still Sucks

One reason the CD-ROM industry is in trouble: Developers don't know when to stop adding buttons and start communicating information.

Published April 13, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the package for "Red Shift 2," a popular astronomy CD-ROM, invites you to "explore your universe." But you're better off wandering outside on a clear night than trying to navigate this poorly designed product.

"Red Shift 2's" main program greets you with a night sky bordered by inscrutable buttons. If you approach this screen as most normal people do -- pushing the buttons to see what happens -- you will be flummoxed. Sometimes nothing noticeable happens; sometimes whole new instrument panels emerge with labels like "time step" and "locked on object." The best things you can stumble across on "Red Shift 2" without studying the manual -- and why bother with multimedia if you have to study a manual? -- are a stuffy, scientific dictionary of astronomy (easily purchased in paperback form) and a photo gallery of space pictures, the likes of which one can access through NASA on the Web, except on the Web the photos are free and far more numerous.

I say ditch the disk and buy a good book on astronomy -- maybe play a little Strauss in the background while you read it. You'll come away far better informed and in a better mood, too.

The seduction of digital multimedia, whether in prerecorded CD-ROM form or live on the Net, has always depended on our belief that more is better -- that if words alone are good, words and pictures must be better; words, pictures and sound must be much better; and words, pictures, sound and video must be awesome. And yet countless variations on the unsatisfactory "Red Shift 2" experience suggest that the advantages of multimedia may be a mirage.

The multimedia literature is full of zealous but vague arguments on behalf of new, nonlinear, multisensory communication experiences. Yet successful examples remain rare.

Design expert Edward Tufte -- Yale University professor and author of three books on information design, including the new "Visual Explanations" -- has no patience for the idea that multimedia software should require users to understand information in some new way. He calls such arguments "cyberchat" -- which is, he explains, "a nice way of saying 'bullshit.'" To insist that people should learn to gain information from a nonlinear presentation is nothing less than "blaming the victim," he says. "It's almost always a failure of design."

In that case, the design failure seems to have become an epidemic. Might it be inherent in the whole concept? Is multimedia software too mentally assaultive to engage us? Does adding sensory input somehow subtract from intellectual impact? "Yes!" you might think, reviewing the number of awful multimedia products out there. But the answer seems to be more complex.

"It's not the number of modalities that's really the factor," says Steven Winshel, a cognitive scientist who is also an Internet consultant in Los Angeles. By "modalities" he means the different ways the brain is receiving information from the outside world. When modalities work in concert with one another -- when the music, say, reinforces the text -- the brain is far more likely to retain and respond to information than if, for example, you were reading the words to one song while listening to the tune of a second song and seeing a visual associated with a third song.

"It's discordance and poor organization that's likely to make a mess," says Winshel, "not multiple modalities."

Then again, discordance and poor organization are rampant in an expressive medium that is both new and dominated by technologists. Just ask Tufte, who bristles at the routine stupidity of screen design alone, in both multimedia software and on the Web. "You'll often find that three-fourths of the screen is devoted to non-content. What this reflects," he says, "is power. The screen is controlled first by the programmers, secondly by the interface decorators. By the time they get done, there's not much space for the content."

That these programmers and "decorators" are so intent on technological muscle-flexing leaves little chance for coherent communication. You can see it right on the packages of so many multimedia software products, which almost always brag about the number of photos or video clips or hypertext links the program contains. Do book jackets extol the number of words an author has used? Do liner notes crow about how many bars the musicians play?

People in the multimedia industry certainly know they've got a problem. "Most of the people I speak with still find multimedia more exciting as an idea than a product," says Glenn Kurtz, a multimedia researcher who teaches at San Francisco State University. "Let's say that the things that are currently being produced are not what everybody is dreaming of."

And what, exactly, is everybody dreaming of? "The holodeck on 'Star Trek,'" he says.

That vision of a totally immersive fictional environment is alluring, all right. It's also part of the trouble. The more our multimedia developers dream longingly of possessing the technology to create visionary products, the more they overlook the Pandora's box of communication issues their technological wizardry opens up. As a result, says Paul Gregutt, co-creative director for EPG Multimedia, the multimedia market is crowded with "a lot of products that have a lot of meaningless bells and whistles, that are overly complicated, and that really don't communicate well."

"I think people in the industry have asked themselves, 'What whizzbangs does this technology offer?' rather than 'What's the best use of the technology to deliver this message we have?'" says Andy Armstrong, co-founder of Wonderworks, a multimedia development firm in northeast England. "They may not even be clear about what their message is."

In the world of applications software, adding and enhancing programs means throwing in new functions and new interfaces and new capabilities. If such enhancements turn out to be useless to most users (and they usually are), they can be ignored. But in multimedia software, the "bells and whistles" are themselves communicative elements: pictures, sounds, animation, hypertext. Not only can't they be ignored, they directly contribute to the sort of experience the user has, and if they're unclear, the whole product sinks into incoherence.

Sensory input becomes sensory overload, then, not because multimedia throws too much information at us, but because designers don't know how to combine that information well enough. As a result, ironically, experiences intended to be "interactive" regularly become even more passive than their broadcast-media equivalents.

Armstrong notes how traditional media have always felt obliged to fill available bandwidth: Newspapers leave little white space, TV stations always show images and audio "because that's the bandwidth they have and they like to fill it up." He wishes multimedia could be more discerning, more adaptive. "If silence is appropriate, then it's OK for it to be silent," he says. "You don't have to have animation and movies all the time."

"In the course of a day," he continues, "we go through periods of intense sensory input, periods of almost total sensory deprivation and the whole spectrum in between. In each of these states, interesting things are happening inside our heads. Multimedia has the potential to reproduce the sensory conditions which correspond to a wider range of these states than any other medium. But it's my assertion that the industry doesn't have much of a clue how to use all this expressive power."

This is why the much-ballyhooed multimedia revolution has so far failed so miserably in the marketplace. Everyone's waiting for the technology while what we have all along is, yes, a failure to communicate.

"The real revolution," says Glenn Kurtz of San Francisco State, "has to do with how we represent information. And that's where multimedia gets incredibly difficult -- and incredibly interesting. It's not that people don't want more information, but that it comes in a form they see as chaotic."

In print, he says, information is generally presented in an elegant way. But, he notes, "bar graphs didn't leap into the world fully formed." Neither should we expect an Athena-like birth for this new expressive medium.

"Multimedia," says Kurtz, "is another way of representing information. And it may be a powerful one."


By Jeremy Schlosberg

Jeremy Schlosberg is a freelance writer who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, on high ground.

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