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Principles of Good Multimedia Design

Not all multimedia is effective. Just like any other product, multimedia can suffer from poor design. Well-designed products should have a cleanly designed interface with intuitive navigation aids. A product is not going to be useful unless the user has a short learning curve to learn the interface. Let us look at a few examples:


Above is a screen shot of an opening interface screen from a CD called Macromedia Multimedia Showcase. This is a multimedia product designed to acquaint the user with Macromedia's products. Notice the background is a collage of art, video and sound equipment. This imagery attempts to alert the user that the product revolves around creating multimedia. The title at the top clearly identifies the product and the means of navigation is a menu straight down the center of the page – which is rather hard to miss. This menu allows you to jump to the parts of the presentation that interest you.

Note the icons in the lower left corner. These are for navigating through the various parts of the presentation after selecting a main topic from the menu. The icon functions (reverse, pause, and forward) should be readily understandable to most users since the designers used a common metaphor to represent them – the controls of a tape player. A metaphor is a representation of a real world item or idea that conveys a message to the user. Using the recycle bin in Windows as the icon for disposing of files makes it easy for many people to understand the icon's use since they know what a recycle bin is used for in real life. Try to use real world metaphors as opposed to abstract ones since they should be understood by the widest selection of potential users.i

Also, notice the speaker icon at the lower left, which will allow you to control the volume of the sound on the presentation. Inclusion of a sound control is vital since users may need to reduce or eliminate sound volume in certain settings (classroom, office cubicle environment, etc.) to avoid disturbing others. There is also a clear way back to the main menu and a clear method of exiting the program. A good rule of thumb is never have the user be more than two "clicks" or two screens from exiting the presentation.

This multimedia product features good clean design and easy to understand controls on its user interface. Users should not have to spend a lot of time learning how to use program and can instead concentrate on the message of the presentation.

Let us look at an animated example of multimedia. An engaging (and free) multimedia presentation on Adobe GoLive can be found at www.adobe.com/education/educators/golive_level1/launch.html. When clicking on this link you should open the presentation in another browser window (hold down your shift key while clicking the link…this causes most browsers to open the link in another window). When you have arrived at the Adobe site, click on the first lesson link (Internet Basics and the GoLive environment). Take a few minutes and review the first dozen screens of the presentation. Notice the following features that constitute good multimedia design:

  • Optional training on the interface controls on the first screen – You are not forced to go into the tutorial on the interface controls, but if you cannot figure them out there is training available. Making this optional saves time for experienced users.

  • Option to turn narration on and off – This is located in the option section. Some people benefit from the narration as it reinforces learning for them. Other folks who do not need the narration or find it annoying can turn it off easily.

  • Easy to quit – The quit button is on every screen, making it easy for the user to exit if they need to do so.

  • Well illustrated – The presentation uses an actual interface screen shot of the product, which is extremely helpful when learning a software tool.

  • User interaction – You are not just sitting there. The designers get you involved by clicking on the screen to simulate using the actual product. This should reinforce the concepts provided by the narrative and the text.

In my opinion, this tutorial is very easy to use and makes it relatively simple for most people to learn to use the GoLive product. A lot of design work was put in up front to make this multimedia product effective.

Multimedia Development Life Cycle

Similar to the software development life cycle, professional multimedia products are constructed in well-planned phases. The typical phases are Analysis, Design, Scripting and Production.ii A brief summation of the activities in each phase follows:


During this phase, extensive meetings with the client are conducted and the goals of the project are defined. The typical decisions that need to be made at this stage are definition of the content of the presentation, identification of the target audience and the delivery medium for the presentation. Identification of the target audience is key since learning strategies that are effective for one type of audience may be ineffective for another type. Commons types of delivery mediums are the web and CD-ROM. Decisions on delivery medium involve assessing the types of hardware, software and operating systems available to the end-users. Many times, to avoid conflicts, producers of multimedia will specify minimum hardware requirements for playback of the media.iii


The product of the design phase is a set of blueprints and a schedule for the developers to follow in completing the product. Typical tasks in this phase include:

  • Design of the instructional framework

  • Determine delivery platform

  • Inventory available (pre-produced) content and media

  • Design the interface

  • Assemble a team

  • Build a prototype

  • Create storyboards

Multimedia projects are usually planned on storyboards before beginning to produce the project. Storyboards are visual representations of the various screens in the program that show positioning of media, content and navigational aids. They can be hand drawn or computer generated (PowerPoint is a decent tool for creating storyboards). The storyboards do not contain actual media and content (unless it is pre-existing), but rather have placeholders for media and content. They are the blueprints from which the media producers, programmers and graphic artists will work when developing the product. Below is an example of a storyboard for the opening screen of an online faculty orientation program. The green boxes indicate actions that will need to be taken by team members.


Once the project is designed and the project team assembled, the next phase can proceed.


Complete specifications are developed for all components of the multimedia production at this stage. Narrative is written for all screens. Scripts are written for audio and video talent. Often a catalog of media resources (both existing and required) is assembled for each screen of the project. Nothing is left to chance at this stage. Every detail is set down on paper so there will be no misunderstandings among team members. The scripts serve as the blueprints that will be followed to create the project in the last phase.


In this phase all media is produced or purchased according to the scripts. Media elements are integrated into the final product with the authoring tool chosen. The system is thoroughly tested, bugs are fixed, a beta test is conducted with the client, final revisions are made, media is replicated and the product is distributed to the end users.

Multimedia Software Tools

When arranging for multimedia design training, design theory, artistic composition and human computer interaction (HCI) courses should be included in the curriculum you follow. In addition, you will need training on popular software packages used to create and edit multimedia elements. Macromedia (www.macromedia.com) and Adobe (www.adobe.com) are the two largest software companies that produce multimedia development software. Reviewing their web sites periodically for new product information, upgrade information and downloads of demonstration versions of software products is a worthwhile endeavor.

In addition to software packages that manipulate multimedia elements, you should also be proficient in the use of authoring software. Authoring software is a type of software that makes it easy for you to manage all types of multimedia elements and weave them into a full-fledged multimedia presentation.

Below are lists of popular multimedia software packages organized by software type.

Text Manipulation Tools – Obviously, a word processing package such as Microsoft Word or WordPerfect is a necessity. If you have large amounts of printed text that is not in electronic format, you should probably also consider investing in optical character recognition software (OCR). OCR software, in conjunction with a flatbed scanner and a computer will turn printed characters into ASCII format text that can be manipulated by your word processor. You will not get any of the formatting from the printed page, but you will save an awful lot of typing.

Painting and Drawing Tools – Painting software, such as Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, PicturePublisher and Fractal Design Painter, are used to create bitmap images. Painting programs blend 2-D bit-mapped graphics with an interface that mimics brush canvas techniques used by live painters.iv Drawing software, such as CorelDraw, FreeHand, Illustrator, Designer and Canvas, is dedicated to producing vector-based line art.v Artistic skill and creativity are required to create your own images with these packages.

Image Editing Software – Popular packages are Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Fireworks, Paint Shop Pro, Microsoft Photo, Photoshop LE and Photoshop Elements. Using these software packages allows you to open images in a variety of formats, resize them, modify the colors and elements, combine them with other images, add text and graphics, compress them, and save them in a variety of formats.vi

Animation Software – Everyone seems to love motion these days, especially on the web. Many software packages can do animation to varying degrees. Fireworks, Flash, QuickTime Pro, Cinema 4D, and Photoshop are widely used.vii Live Motion is a product recently introduced by Adobe that is gaining market share and popularity, especially because of its tight integration with Photoshop.

Sound Software – Recording and editing sound effects and narratives can be accomplished (to varying degrees) with the following packages: SoundRecorder, SimpleSound, SoundEdit, Sony Sound Forge, Adobe Audition, Audacity, CoolEdit Pro, QuickTime Pro Player and Flash.viii SoundRecorder is included as part of the Windows environment. SimpleSound comes standard in the Macintosh operating system. Although SoundRecorder and SimpleSound do not have as many features as some of the other packages, they are provided free with your operating system. Audacity is an Open Source audio editor, that can be downloaded for free from the web. Audacity has the advantage of being cross-platform, and is available for the Windows, Macintosh, and Linux operating systems. The Audacity web site is audacity.sourceforge.net.

Web Page Development Software – Macromedia Dreamweaver, Adobe GoLive and Pagemill, Microsoft FrontPage and Visual Interdev are popular web page development packages. Since so much multimedia is deployed on the web today, you should be familiar with at least one of these packages.

Video Software – Edit DV and Adobe Premiere and After Effects are typical consumer-level products. You will most likely find training for these products at community colleges and art schools. Higher end (translation: expensive) editing solutions are Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Pro and Media 100.ix

Authoring Software – Leading packages are Click 2 Learn's ToolBook and Macromedia Director and Authorware.



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