ideation iteration illumination

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.

Therein lies an important shift. As the barriers to content creation and delivery have decreased, moving authorship away from the traditional television network and cable provider models, the amount of content coming from these smaller more prolific providers has increased exponentially. This increase, which is largely due to user interactions in a PC/web dynamic, has created a bidirectional relationship which has resulted in today’s “viewers” expecting the ability to dialogue with the content they consume. This dialog includes things like TiVo’s thumbs up/thumbs down, comments on Twitter, sharing on Facebook, video responses on YouTube, ratings on Netflix, aggregation on ClickerTV, and friends from our social circles recommending their favorite shows, movies and videos. The term “viewer” in the conventional sense no longer applies as viewing connotes a passive activity. Today’s consumers want their content to be highly engaging and personally and/or socially relevant.

In addition to the web, there are many phone apps that are experimenting with how to best engage television content consumers with social features like ‘checking in’ to let friends know what you’re currently watching as well as rating and commenting on the content you consume. Other applications attempt to offer points and prizes in exchange for participation. As of yet, there has been no home hit in the phone based television app space but there are a lot of interesting things happening and as we continue to experiment, the industry is bound to hit on the right formula sooner or later. As UX designers we need to take up the leadership role an ensuring that our product teams are considering the whole picture (no pun intended). As we see what technologies are influencing behaviors, we need to keep the TV living room centric as we contemplate a more meaningful way to frame the experience. We need to take a moment and think about the Why of creating apps for television and not just the How. We too commonly get caught up on the tactical aspects of wireframing interactions and Photoshopping assets but we need to take a step back away from the mouse consider the experience from a higher, more conceptual layer; the meta-experience.

So now we are faced with an interesting experience conundrum. The potential and perhaps user expectation around consuming content on the television could be more active and contributory but at the same time, we realize that it should remain simple and content centric. This is where we must step in a shape the future. The major task of the true Smart TV is organizing, understanding and delivering relevant content intelligently not becoming a big tablet. This TV intelligence should be based on the consumption habits of the viewers and their social inputs regardless across theof source. The many constituent sources of traditional content now include multiple free, paid a la carte, subscribed, second screens, auxiliary devices, and shared social networks but regardless of what technology we use to enhance TV intelligence, it should always respect the active stream and remain subordinate to the consumption experience. TV’s intelligence only has to raise a fraction in the right way to completely change the landscape. Attempting to do too much too fast will only create obstacles to achieving its ultimate potential.

If a user wants to divert her attention from the stream to check email, that can be done on a personalized device like a phone, tablet or laptop. If she wants to share a thought about the show she’s watching on Twitter, that too should be relegated to a second personalized screen, like her Smart Phone, because of the individualized benefits we’ve discussed. However, the interesting shift in an ideal ecosystem is that the Smart Phone’s Twitter App should be aware of what the active stream is on the Smart TV. The seamless and trasparent flow of that information can then be used, augmented, and distributed via the individualized interface. It would be undesirable for that viewer, potentially one of many in the physical social living room space, to pull up her Twitter account on screen to share her thoughts with her digital social space. For one, it’s highly invasive and will disrupt her consumption and potentially infuriate the other people who may be sitting next to her. Also, her private account on screen is an exposure that many people would quickly find undesirable (imagine the friend sitting next to her seeing some comment on her Twitter feed that another friend made at his expense!). The television should remain a group display and the phone an individual one.

A good place to begin defining design principles for Smart TV apps would possibly start with a short list. Something like:

1. Minimize disruption of the active stream of content

2. Focus on content and the group in the living room

3. Be intelligent and relevant

With these three points in mind, let’s have a look at what a Twitter app for television might look like. It could be a small crawler at the bottom of the screen that horizontally scrolls tweets that are about the currently playing video. If a commercial is on, tweets about the advertised product, special promotions, coupons, etc. If it’s the latest broadcast episode, tweets about the plot, the actors, or the series. No individualized distractions. Only meaningful augmentation of the content. Notice we’ve not mentioned anything about posting, or following, or switching user, or changing background colors from the television. That’s because those actions don’t fit in our list of principles. TV isn’t the place for them. However, I should be able to bring up my phone’s twitter app, which is logged into my account, and tweet about any of the mentioned possibilities along with a screenshot of what I’m watching, or click through to follow up on tweets that have been displayed on screen. The degree of screen interference could also be intelligent. For example, as I’m watching a more ‘conversational’ show like the evening news, I might see this more crawler based example, whereas if I was watching a movie the would go into a “Do not disturb” mode automatically.

Another great possibility that could easily follow these principles would be IMDB. With its storehouse of information of curated content, the app almost writes itself. If I’m watching a TV show I can invoke the app, which knows what I’m watching and gives me the synopsis, cast and crew. I don’t need additional movie showtime info, or trailers, or trivia or any of the other great features that are useful on the phone or computer only that which is relevant to what I’m watching. Now, that’s not so say that the IMDB app couldn’t be delightfully powerful in its simplicity. Imagine that as I’m browsing through the cast of the TV show I’m currently watching, I click through and see his acting credits and it happens that he’s in movie that’s currently playing on a cable network, the app should allow me to watch the trailer and switch to the other movie with little more than a click. No finding the remote and pulling up the EPG from my cable provider in search of it. A simple intelligent content relevant pivot is what will make my experience delightful. There should be no long complicated text inputs or multiple screen ‘steps’ to complete anything. That’s too much work. I expect the Smart TV to be smart for me.

The trick to a successful app for television is to distill the need for user input and interactions down to almost nil. Remember, television is a passive, lean-back activity. A phone, tablet, or laptop is an active lean-in activity. That’s not to say that there’s no room for more active lean-in apps on a Smart TV, but in general the television consuming audience needs to walk before it’s comfortable running.  Of course, the major contradiction to the lean-back notion is Video games.

Video games have enjoyed a long history of sharing the television screen with broadcast content, but remember, in doing so, a user very consciously changes “modes.” This change used to be made with a physical device. I remember the little aluminum input switch-box that lived behind my television set. It was stuck there with double sided tape and, like a parasite, its two claw like appendages screwed into the back of our helpless TV. Every time I wanted to play a game I had to slide my arm around the television set into the dusty darkness of the TV cabinet and slide switch from “TV” to “Game/Computer.” Nowadays, with multiple inputs built into most sets, selections are made with the remote, but the mental modality is still very clear. The user switches from TV to Games. He does not bring up his games over his television and attempt to navigate and digest them both on the same screen at the same time. Again, there could be some very interesting explorations around how live video and games could coexist and interact with each other as long as that exploration abides the rules for the television meta-experience.

As we designers stand looking down at the UX tightrope spanning the unknown Smart TV application future don’t fret. Steady yourself. Stay calm. We can make it across. We are well prepared and have the collective tools to help each other across, we just have to make sure we’re focusing on big picture. Not the rope, not the other side, not gravity, and not the ground below, but the wonderful circus that is the experience of it all.


Bill Sheppard
October 17, 2011

Nice article – you made some very good points and expressed some interesting ideas.

November 1, 2011

Thanks for such a considered piece. Coming from a traditional TV background, but keen to explore and understand the possibilities opening up by smart technology, this is the first piece I’ve read that understands the role of TV and how different it is from other devices. Far from retreating to smaller viewing experiences, consumers are buying bigger and biggger TV’s, expressing their desire for a shared experience, an appointment to view. Folk have been writing off the role of TV since i started making it, and yet we see no evidence of its demise, just a shift in the control of when stuff is watched. And in the UK, we have enjoyed top quality, uninterrupted content courtesy of our PSB’s and don’t take too quickly to anything that disrupts that quality experience. Your principles are sound – i for one hope they become the backbone of future work in this field

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