Najjar, L. J. (1992). Multimedia user interface design guidelines (IBM TR52.0046). Atlanta, GA: IBM Corporation.

Multimedia User Interface Design Guidelines

September 24, 1992
IBM TR52.0046

Lawrence J. Najjar
IBM Corp.
P. O. Box 2150
Atlanta, GA 30301-2150
(404) 835-7071
Tie line 336/7071



I am grateful to Greg Corso (Georgia Institute of Technology, School of Psychology) and Bennett Lauber (IBM-Santa Teresa, Information Design and Publishing Services) for their generous assistance.


This paper describes guidelines for designing multimedia user interfaces. Most of the guidelines are based on independent research. The guidelines are to:


Multimedia user interfaces combine several kinds of media to help people use a computer. These media can include text, graphics, animation, images, voice, music, and touch. Multimedia user interfaces are gaining popularity because they are very effective at keeping the interest of their users, improve the amount of information users remember, and can be very cost-effective (Alexander, 1992; Fletcher, 1990; Verano, 1987).

Several reports support the value of multimedia. Bethlehem Steel found that multimedia training courses cut training time by 20% to 40%, improved retention rates 20% to 40%, and allowed employees to take training when it was most convenient (Alexander, 1992). A Department of Defense literature survey (Fletcher, 1990) concluded that, in higher education, interactive videodisc training roughly improved the performance of students in the 50th percentile to about the 75th percentile of performance. Big 5 Sporting Goods reported (Wilder, 1992) that training time for a point-of-sale cashier dropped about 75% to 50%, cashiers made fewer errors at the point of sale, cashiers and sales representatives retained their skills, and the company standardized training. Another study (Verano, 1987) found that the greater the level of interactivity in the course materials, the more students learned. Compared to standard classroom lecture, students who used interactive videodiscs retained 19% more information when tested four weeks after the training period.

Successful multimedia designers build their products with primary emphasis on the user. Multimedia designers determine which human sensory system is most efficient at receiving specific information, then use the media that involves that human sensory system. For example, to teach someone how to fix a part on a jet engine it is probably most efficient for the student to watch someone else fixing the part rather than hearing a lecture on how to fix the part. The human visual system is better at receiving this complex information. So, the designer for this multimedia product should probably use video as the medium of communication.

This heavy emphasis on the user's senses, rather than the media, means that we should probably call these product user interfaces "multisensory" rather than "multimedia.". The human senses that designers use most frequently in their multimedia products are sight, sound, and touch. Multimedia products often stimulate these senses simultaneously. For example, a user can see and hear a video, and then touch a graphical button to freeze the video image.

Since so many media are available to the multimedia user interface designer, it is very easy to overwhelm and confuse the users of these products. The following guidelines are based on the way people think and perceive information. These guidelines will help you build multimedia user interfaces that are easy and comfortable for people to learn and use.

General Guidelines

Here are some general guidelines.


The medium of sight is helpful when you need to communicate detailed information, such as instructions, that the user may need to refer to later. Here are some guidelines that involve sight.


The medium of sound is helpful when you need to communicate short, simple information, such as confirmation beeps, that users don't have to refer to later. Here are some guidelines that involve sound.


The medium of touch is helpful when you need to ask the user to make simple choices, such as product navigation decisions, without using a keyboard. Here are some guidelines that involve touch.


Multimedia user interfaces are powerful, compelling ways to help people use computers. To build a successful multimedia user interface, design with primary emphasis on the user. Focus on the users' sensory strengths and keep your user interface simple and obvious.


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Larry Najjar is a human factors engineer in IBM UserFirst sm1 Usability, an organization that performs usability design and testing services for customers inside and outside of IBM. He earned his MS in Engineering Psychology from the Georgia Insitute of Technology in 1983. After graduating, he worked for Systems Research Laboratories in Hanover, Maryland, where he helped design the user interface for a multimedia word processing and transcription work station. In 1984, he joined IBM in Rockville, Maryland, where he worked on the new multimedia user interface for air traffic controllers. In 1989, he transferred to Atlanta where he helps design and test user interfaces for a wide variety of software products. He has published several invention disclosures on multimedia user interface design ideas.

1 UserFirst is a service mark of International Business Machines Corporation.