Design Conventions Past and Present

Every so often I get a bit nostalgic and enjoy looking back at the past. Oddly enough, while we can do this with pictures, newspapers, and magazines, most of the older websites have either been updated or taken offline. The majority of Web 1.0 and any past counterparts have been lost to time (or, if it was lucky enough, been archived by the Wayback Machine). Luckily some crumbs fall through the cracks, and one of these relics is the Space Jam website from 1996. Looking at it, we can see how some website conventions evolved over the years, and how user needs have adjusted. In order to do this, I’ll be using the movie website for Storks as a comparable modern experience.


The Breakdown

The very first things I noticed were the links. There are a few peculiar things about them: totaling 11 to choose from, they are all image-focused, and their names aren’t exactly forthcoming as to what they hold. Before we go farther, please choose which planet you would pick to find the movie trailer (we’ll get back to this in a moment). Now please direct your attention to the Storks landing page.

There are 5 links in all, with 4 clearly named categories with the last being arguably simple to discern. Most are text-only. Once again, please decide where the trailer would be! Over the years, it seems movie sites have become more conscientious about what they put on a page with an attempt to place what is most important first. This site’s goal is to answer the question, “What is this movie about?” in a quick and easy way. Put the trailer first, and add a synopsis just in case. For more in-depth users they added extra videos and images to represent the Storks world, and a card match game to get kids excited.

Space Jam’s goal seems a little more oblique. They have behind-the-scenes footage, a basketball-themed area with a virtual tour of the “Jordan Dome”, digital souvenirs, and more that doesn’t directly pertain to convincing people to head to the theater. It’s almost a one-stop shop for anything someone would want, decreasing the need to search elsewhere. Since 1996 was towards the beginning of movie sites, it seems like the developers threw everything at a wall, and waited to see what stuck for the next release.

For those that guessed “Jam Central” would hold the trailer, you are correct. While it is technically in the top center of the solar system, it doesn’t hold the tallest position on the screen (“Planet B-Ball”) and its blue and green representation of earth is not one of the brightest or largest planets which makes it incredibly easy to miss.

Once inside, it becomes even clearer that this was made before color contrast conventions were taken into consideration. The dark red text on a black starry background is difficult to notice, let alone read. This was also the time period when links inside images were stylish, and all of the inner pages make sure you don’t forget it.

With high contrast lettering and section navigation, the next page is possibly the strongest of the 3 we’ve seen from Space Jam. Unfortunately, if you came to watch the trailer, it’s a bit too deep in the site to easily find.

This is where constraints of the time actually begin to show themselves. In this and all the other movie clips below, each has their name, length, and file size in some descriptive text. Another large difference is that these all download to your computer instead of streaming directly from the site. This is because of the large amount of time it would have taken your dial-up connection to download the measly 7.5 megabytes from the internet, let alone to stream the trailer. The fact that this was such an issue meant that showing the file size truly allowed users to consider the amount of time and energy they were willing to invest before committing to the download.


The Wrap-up

Looking back makes me wonder which usability issues were design patterns of the time and which were used because of development constraints. It seems like a lot of decisions were simply because there was no true standard for what would constitute a good movie site. The navigation labels attempt to draw in the user, but are too vague to mean anything, and most pages miss the site’s goal of increasing ticket sales. Why were image links were used?. Was it so that they would stand out from paragraph text, or was it just as an accent piece? What was considered user-friendly back in the late 1990’s?

Many of the issues within the Space Jam website reappeared when Centralis tested and defined the standard for Blu-ray menus in the mid 2000’s, even though they were in a slightly different form. Whenever a new technology comes out, it seems that design conventions have to be re-defined.

To me, part of this repetition feels like it is because we are missing the past context. The Space Jam site isn’t known because it’s good, but because it is a rare piece of digital history that hasn’t been wiped clean. If we had better historical context for what drives the design standards of a time, maybe it would be easier to create them when new technology surfaces.