Getting the interface right means breaking down the divide.

Note: First published Jan 25th, 2012

This is an article about TV experiences and how currently there are many experiences out there that are attempting to turn TV into an internet device when really it should be about embracing what makes TV work and making the internet work in that way.
When many talk about UX they are nearly always talking about user experience for web, it is where UX grew up and only now is mobile also taking up a lot of time and resources in UX departments around the world. At the moment social media and the experience of the ipad are grabbing a share of mind in many companies, the result being a land grab to ensure they get a bit of the action. The end results have been mixed and, in many cases, are wide of the mark. One area where anyone has yet to score a direct hit is the TV experience, at least from the ‘TV’ side of things.

Setting the TV Landscape

In order to understand the lanscape there are two things to keep in mind, the platforms and services. From a UK perspective the platforms can be broken down into:

  • TV channel Owners (BBC, Channel 4 etc)
  • TV Platform Owners (Sky, Virgin Media, BT Vision)
  • TV Hardware (Samsung etc)
  • Games Consoles (Playstation, Xbox, Wii)
  • DVD / Blu-Ray
  • Transmission means (Cable, Satellite, Terrestrial, Internet / IP-TV)

And if you where wondering where Apple TV fits then it’s almost a platform but not quite. It fits somewhere between TV Hardware and TV Platform. Also there is a subset who use computers as their TV or use an iPad as a way to consume video, but in both those cases they can be viewed as just another way of
Moving on to services these can be broken down into…

  • Linear Channels (time-shifting being an add onto this)
  • Recording (PVR functionality including season/series linking/planner)
  • Electronic Programme Guide (EPG)
  • Red button interaction (interactions tied into a linea channel – slowly dying out with the BBC starting to kill their offering for TV after the Olympics but looking to enable them for Radio).
  • Apps / Interactive services. This ranges from Teletext through to the new world of twitter and other offerings appearing on the services. Two screen experiences. These offer either parallel or interacting experiences
  • Play along / on screen experiences. This merges the concept or red button experiences and the two screen experiences but keep the experience on the original screen.
  • Video on demand. This includes many different types of services from catch up TV to pay per view content through to You Tube type content. Settings. This is a service that is often overlooked and badly designed. Being able to tailor the experience is important and this area is on all platforms in one form or the other.
    This is a rough summary of the things available at the moment or will be becoming more popular soon. The problem is many of these service get hidden away from the users. To many TV is still about linear TV, with about 50% of all UK users never having used a red button service.

Exploring the divide

I’m going to start off by looking at connected TVs then move to Google TV and apple TV before returning back to Sky, BT Vision and Virgin Media (disclaimer at the time of writing I am working for Sky). Currently we are facing a deluge of ‘internet on TV’ type solution. These present the TV experience as a series of apps. To access the content associated with that app you have to select it and then find what you are after. So on one side you have linear TV, the other you have a series of small boxes you have to delve into and find your own content. The question is in which way is this better? Providing all the content in the world is no use if you then have little help navigating this choice. Linear TV delievers content on a platter through channels. Don’t like this platter? Just change channel. It’s simple and it works.
 There are, of course, exceptions. Films are a good example. Love Film has made a good business out of people putting a lot of effort into selecting and then watching films. This has a degree of tradition about it – people still go to a lot of effort to go and see a film in the cinema and invest time and effort into this.

You can also point out that videos on you tube get millions of views. This is true but then watching TV is not the same. Using the internet is a lean forward active activity. TV is a lean back experience that requires a different degree of interaction for most of the time. It’s about being entertained in a more passive way. Putting internet content on TV is not just about copying the iphone and adding apps. What these connected TV solutions have done is create a dual world – not merged TV with the Internet. The divide continues to exist and is made wider.

To return to the platforms in the UK this kind of devide is emphesised by the use of the EPG (electronic programme guide). You will notice that some platforms keep a mini TV running in one corner. This is an attempt to break down the divide and is very hard to get rid off – especially in a shared usage home. On the TV side of the devide there are various types of on screen displays that allow for channel surfing – ways to see what is on next and previously and to get more information about what you’re watching. Some platforms take this further but in general that’s what you get before you have to jump into another world. But the EPG is relatively close to the user compared to the various video on demand service offered. It’s a different world down there – far away from the light of the TV experience. For Apple TV that’s all there really is – video on demand. For BT Vision video on demand was the selling point – yet it still sat far away from live TV. BT vision had a dedicated video team producing promo videos – but these where hidden in the standard hirachical list of menus resulting in them being hardly viewed and ineffective at promoting other hidden content.

But what about iPlayer? Well again this is a mostly computer activity, although it works well on the ‘near screen’ experience on the iPad. For ‘known’ items it can also work on TV and the BBC have spread iPlayer out onto various devices and aim to have this on place with all the major UK platforms as well. They succeed because of the content and the original simple experience of the iPlayer. Unfortunately even the BBC are starting to loose their way with recent updates to the Playstation iPlayer experience being slower and harder to use than their original web based offering. And less televisual! Add to that a favouriting system that doesn’t really work that well, the lack of labeling of new content (the amount of repeats is getting painful) and you’ve got an offering that is losing it’s way.

In general when I got into interactive TV all the promises of play along games, chat as you watch, multiple cameras and other additional offerings becoming standard have all but disappeared. What is left is a back water of items that have not progressed much since the 1980s.

What I believe we need is a radical rethink of what TV is and to embrace the passive rather than racing after the deep level of interactivity that is expected for touch and mouse based systems. And if we have to get interactive make it more akin to a video game and less like playing songs on an ipod.

So how do we break down the barrier?

What is needed is a new way of thinking about navigating content on TV and where possible return back to the simplicity of flicking through channels. Early Interactive TV systems like those of ‘videotron’ used analogue channel switching to provide interesting TV experiences. These ranged from a cheesy but oddly engaging game of blackjack to the first ever interactive TV advertising for Kelloggs Frosties. These tied different channels together to deliver a uniform result and where all video all the time, well except for a bit of an overlay for the blackjack. They where televisual.

Around the same time (mid to late 90′s) Web TV was also created by Steve Pearlman who later went on to create OnLive (see this post about the idea of using the same concept for TV interfaces). The original Web TV, later destroyed by Microsoft, had a video manipulation chip at it’s heart (called Solo after Steve’s dog) that allowed televisual transitions between screens. It was the first attempt to bring TV thinking to Internet style content. I’m not saying it was a success but it does show that connected TV is not new, just an attempt at what has been gone before.
What I’m proposing is not a solution but some pointers to a solution, ways of thinking. These are:

  • Embrace the Passive
  • More channels, less menus.
  • Keep things Televisual

Let's go through these one by one.

Embrace the Passive

On one side of the divide, the world is delivered to you on a plate, it never stops providing. On the other in order for you to get anything you have to figuratively poke it with a stick. You have to do some work in order for you to get your reward out. For movies often the reward is worth the extra effort, although more movies would be watched if there was less effort. Same is true for box set binges.

What users need is more things served up to them without them having to do things. TV needs to be LESS interactive. Interactive TV has been tried for many years now and never really got traction. Unless it’s a game and has an ergonomic controller you don’t have to look at to use then you need to keep the button presses to a minimum. There needs to be more use of timelines of content and more curated content delivered to the user wihtout the need to interact.

More channels, less menus

Switching channels is the main way we interact with TV, so why don’t we just use that idea more? Rather than putting services in a menu you access via a special button press why not put it on it’s own channel? One service that did that in the UK was the VOD based service Homechoice. This had music channels that where 100% on demand and had their own position on the EPG. Viewers could just sit and watch random videos, browse or add them to a list. This mean they had a choice about how interactive they wanted to be, down to next to none. This is one example of how the channel can be used to provide navigation to on demand content in the same way as linear TV.

Keep Things Televisual

The final direction that needs to be explored is about making things more televisual. Currently we are stuck with a bunch of very dull looking menus with a highlight. These also tend to be silent. In simple terms future interfaces need have better animation, more use of overlaying onto moving video, better use of time and transitions and intelligent use of spot effects. The world of games offers some potential solutions here although even modern games like Skyrim suffer from navigation issues. Other games like Portal only give you the information when you need it and provide help through voice instructions and events happening in the world you’re exploring. In TV the world is the linear TV stream and we should endevour to do as much as possible in that world, not the world of text menus.

Summary: No one has invented the ‘iPhone’ for TV

There was a whole vibrant market of mobile phones in the world before Apple disrupted the market with the iphone. It was a new way of thinking about a phone. It wasn’t the first touch screen phone and many of it’s features had been done before, but it did things better and was supported by a well thought out ecosystem. It’s claimed Steve Jobs cracked TV before he passed away. This would have to be a radical departure from where Apple TV currently sits and somehow try and free it’s self form the increasing mess that iTunes and iCloud has become.

What we are looking at is an open goal, a system that provides linear TV and Video on demand into one seamless experience whilst embracing elements of the web and intergrating them without resorting to using ‘apps’. This system will be fun to use, have a very minimal remote, be televisual, be responsive and make content discovery easy. It’s easy to fall for red herrings – things like social TV and gesture controls are side shows, they are not where the action should be – adding facebook integration is not where the focus should be.

The exact solution will be one of balance, taste and some very hard core User Experience design backed by a company that is willing to leap forward a few years away from where we are, a company that knows that connected TV is a dead end, has access to content and enough users to make their efforts worthwhile.

update May 2014

Sky have been busy and launched a Now TV box and updated their Sky Plus experience. Both still suffer from the 'poke it with a stick' problem. Sky's homepage concept replaces the guide and provides a few quick links through to video on demand content. This is a sticky plaster on user eperience with big problems. In my view the interface of YouView remains the best in the UK, with Virgin Media's Tivo offering providing a lot of features in a very menu driven way.

We still have yet to see the next step forward in TV UX. Did Steve Job crack it? If so why do we still have the pedestrian Apple TV? Personally a TV UX project is on my list of dream projects.

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