ideation iteration illumination

At the convergence of improved lightweight operating systems, lower cost yet higher powered hardware, high quality streaming media and consumer hunger for content based technology, more and more televisions are turning into “Smart TVs.” We designers are constantly in the spotlight walking the tightrope of good user experience. One end of the rope is tied to the project inception and the other to post launch feedback and as the gravity of competing priorities pulls ever harder, we teeter, sway, and stumble along trying to balance the best interactive experience across the span. In this emergent phase of Smart TV technology, we must take well considered steps forward lest we carelessly and overconfidently miss the rope, lose our balance and tumble, head over heels, toward the unforgiving ground below.

Inevitably, there are birth pangs with any new and developing product opportunity. When attempting to whet developer curiosities and interest in building applications for Smart TVs we must do so with caution. Caution not because of anything inherently wrong with applications on the television, in fact there is an exciting world of possibilities ahead of us as technology and creative development continue to converge in the living room. The caution is against taking what seems to be the “sensible”  path of moving an existing phone or tablet application to a television. While this seems like a quite logical product strategy, it isn’t. It isn’t, because of the unique history and attributes of the television set in the home and our understanding of our relationship with it.

Let’s have a look at a successful app strategy to date. Twitter’s 140 character message stream-of-internet-consciousness began as a website. Then as the iPhone and ITunes App Store offered expansion, the rush was on to port the existing web experience into the more coveted “app” status. Get the shiny icon presence in the App Store, get more loyalists. Downloads, reviews and updates keep a tight feedback loop between provider and consumer it’s a win-win for company and consumer. Then comes the tablet. Again, all hands on deck to get a tablet version of the phone app launched ASAP. Bigger form factor, more screen real estate, more control and display options for the user without the tiny phone sized screen constraints. The process was repeated outside of the Apple ecosystem as well bringing Android and Blackberry users into the Twitter App fold as well. One last point to mention is that somewhere between website and app is the Twitter mobile site where all the remaining internet connected but non-app capable phones can feel all the love that Twitter community has to offer.

This pattern has largely been repeated by every social, e-commerce, content, and service brand on the internet with greater or lesser success. Additionally, there is another segment of developers and businesses that skipped step one altogether (having a website) and simply went straight to the app business. A recent survey noted that the iTunes App Store has over half a million apps and the Android Market over two hundred thousand and climbing. With so many successes and a bright future ahead for apps, why should we as user experience designers proceed with caution when taking the next step into the living room? Glad you asked.

The number one reason for this caution is that the Smart Phone is a completely different ‘thing’ than the Smart TV. The Smart Phone is the little brother of the PC. A smaller, more portable multi tasking device. Born of a phone, the “Smart” stuff (ie SMS, camera and photos, mp3 playback, email, web browsing, and apps) filled up all of the unused time that was hanging out in your pocket with the little plastic brick you were forced to carry around with you until you needed to reach out and touch someone. The “phone” part of today’s devices has easily taken a backseat to the “Smart” stuff because the nature of a phone device is largely that of standby, rather than active. On the other hand, a television is an active continuous stream of content.

The second reason for caution is that like its big sister the PC, Smart Phones are individualized devices. In fact, I would argue the Smart Phone is the most personal device in human history. Computers are shared in many environments, the workplace, hotels, schools and libraries are the most obvious cases and users have become familiar with the necessary “log out” and privacy needs of this sort of multi-user environment, but even in the home there are multiple users on a single computer which makes account switching necessary for everything from OS settings to email accounts. To the contrary, a phone is a “my device,” not an “our device.” I may let others use my phone but they have to be members of a very trusted inner circle. Given the quantity of private and personalized data on today’s Smart Phone, the act of asking to borrow someone’s phone is about as socially uncomfortable as asking to browse through their wallet. Smart Phones and more specifically Apps to date are very aware of this hyper-individualization and often go to great lengths to optimize for ease of personalization, with cross app sign-on,  syncing, ewallet functionality, etc., etc. I never question when I pull up an email reader on my phone whose account it is and in fact, it’s very rare for anyone to sign out of an account on a Smart Phone, even more rare (and odd) for someone else to check his email on your phone. The Smart Phone and its apps have conditioned users to think of them as a cadre of personalized information distributors and collectors that act as their passport to the digital world. To be continued…



[...] Continuing with this thinking of how Smart Phones and their apps have paved the way for user expectations, we’ll explore how the active nature of television and the multi-user environment necessitate a shift in design thinking when creating apps for the Smart TV, but first a bit more history. Since its introduction, the television has enjoyed its place at the center of the family unit. Following in the footsteps of radio, the television has been the household hub of entertainment, news, and information. A glowing portal through which we observe the world around us. Traditionally this information was broadcast and regulated by those with access to the equipment and financial means to do so (ex. networks, advertisers and the government). The power of the consumer was in deciding what to watch within a relatively narrow set of available programming, not necessarily how or when. Today’s internet and Smart Phone savvy consumers have a far greater sense of control and empowerment as numerous sources of content such as DVRs, DVDs, On-Demand, Pay-Per-View, Over-the-Top streaming, and web based video compete for attention. These examples aren’t taking into account the wealth of user generated and secondary source content now dominating the entertainment online. We not only have control of what we watch but we can control when we want to watch it, how and from whom. [...]

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