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Deconstructing the TV Model

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“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” were the words of Gil Scott-Heron in 1970. With the expanding array of channels, interactive TV platforms and video products, it seems that it is instead television that is being revolutionised.

YouView, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Xbox, Playstation, LG, Samsung, Panasonic. The number of movies and shows streamed through TV platforms has increased by a staggering 65% in the last year (VOD Professional). With the walls between internet and TV crumbling, these platforms are continually facing the complex challenge of how modern consumers expect their content to be delivered.

As is the case with mobile and tablet products, TV apps are designed by third party companies, then submitted for certification to the platform owners such as Microsoft. Some of these platforms have pre specified UX models and UI templates. Some have developed characteristic behaviours that are ‘expected’ by its users. Others have next to no guidelines or templates and consequently a diverse range of behaviour across the apps the platform hosts.

In light of the above, I would like to address the following two questions:

  • Why are these templates in place at all?
  • Should the UX model of the product overpower the expected UX model of the platform?

The answers to these questions can vary depending on whether they are coming from a design, product, or a technology perspective. With regards to this, TV experts from Microsoft, Sky and Ostmodern, as well as Emmy Award winning Dale Herigstad have been approached to provide their views.

App Design: Mobile vs TV

The use of common navigation paradigms is no new topic in the digital design world. Whilst using a mobile app we’ve all grown accustomed to a header bar, a hidden menu and the back button located on the right. Along with many others these are examples of interactions that have, and continue to be, adapted over time to create more scalable solutions, whilst also accommodating for the seismic shifts in technology. These behaviours are now so refined that they are described as ‘native’, and it doesn’t take a technical genius to see that the in-app similarities between the main OS players is growing closer by the day.

Common mobile patterns

But is this progression towards common navigation paradigms to be the future for TV apps? There are a number of constraints that differentiate TV’s from other devices when designing one product across a variety of TV platforms:

User base - The diversity of user base between TV platforms is much higher than that of mobile platforms; ranging from a family of smart TV users, to solo games console enthusiasts.

Performance - This differs vastly across TV platforms. ‘Console quality’ means a processing power with the ability to handle high-end graphics as well as a wide range of functionality. As it stands, smart TVs sit at the opposite end of the scale, with set top boxes positioned somewhere between the two.

Input Device - It’s highly unlikely that the index finger will ever be redesigned. Remote controls, however, are predominantly platform specific and their design have a great influence on the UI.

Legacy - On average, smartphones are replaced every 2 years. For TV its more like every 5 years, or for games consoles every 10. TV platforms therefore hold more legacy than mobile devices.

Selection of input devices

TV App Templates

Xbox is an example of a platform that has a pre specified guidelines for digital products to build from. After being part of the design team for the Now TV app on both Xbox 360 and Xbox One, I developed an interest in Microsoft's rationale behind their app behaviour templates.

Xbox One Dashboard

Senior UX Lead for Xbox One, Eddie Mays, states that the app templates are a showcase of the platform capabilities. They are intended to expose the best design techniques, pattern translations and interactions in context of the system.

Senior Program Manager for Xbox One, Matt Akers, adds that it’s is also about consistency for the end user. The idea that they learn the UX paradigm presented to them, which they can then use elsewhere in the system.

But how closely should third parties be following these templates? Director of UX at Ostmodern, Jose Alves, gives the opinion that unless a product has specific requirements that the template does not satisfy, following platform guidelines is the best approach from a familiarity and responsiveness standpoint, and will greatly reduce confusion for the user.

These views highlight the importance of consistent interaction paradigms within a platform ecosystem. On a system level people learn a pattern of usage which becomes fairly automatic, meaning they are less likely to look at their input device while navigating. Introducing foreign patterns essentially leads to the user having to learn new behaviours, potentially slowing down the process of them finding what they want to watch.

In light of this, if a digital product intends to position its app across multiple TV platforms, is it therefore the best approach for them to build separate experiences to satisfy the common behaviours of each? Unfortunately, it is not that simple.

UX model: Platform vs Product

In the current digital age, part of being a successful product involves presence on all of the major platforms. However, building and maintaining apps on these major platforms comes with a hefty price tag. The more apps to build and maintain, the more design thinking is needed, the more development work is needed, and the slower new features can be added; ultimately leading to a more expensive and less adaptable product.

With programming models for TV predominantly aligning to HTML, JavaScript and CSS3, it is now possible to transfer code written for TV platforms such as Xbox One to others such as Roku. By effectively architecting the structure of the UI and selecting the correct development frameworks, code sharing can be greatly improved at a service level. This opens up the opportunity to half or even quarter development work, and therefore time and cost, introducing more time for building bespoke features.

Senior Windows app developer for Sky, Davide Zordan, provides the technical view that having the same UX model applied across all TV platforms provides an efficient solution as it speeds up the development of new functionalities. He suggests the compromise, that platform templates should be taken as a starting point, but should not restrict the UI that the designer has in mind. This could otherwise lead to a limitation rather than an inspiration. The designer should be able to apply their ideas without too many constraints imposed by the platform, in this way the UX model of the product can receive the best improvements.

Ostmodern’s Design Director, Chris Randall, expands on this, stating that something considered as ‘standard’ will likely be disproven further down the line, admittedly certain trends have longer life-cycles than others. Unification does hamper innovation, knowing where to push things for the better is key.

The above views introduce a further point; if templates are too meticulously followed, all apps on a TV platform may end up looking the same, increasing the likelihood of a monotonous user experience across the system and preventing clever innovations that could surprise and delight the user.

It is important to note that templates provided by Xbox are not compulsory. When asked about their thoughts regarding products diverting away from them, Matt Akers and Eddie Mays both suggest that consistency also wins on an app level as well as a system level.

As an established brand, Netflix diverge away from templates, instead providing their own coherent experience across all of their platforms, something that has come to be expected and heralded by their users.

Netflix on Xbox One

This example indicates that a product's brand is not necessarily defined by its visual language and tone of voice alone, but can also be defined by its layers of branded interface, and the narrative of how the user travels between them. Designing a bespoke and engaging experience could be the key to differentiating one digital product from the masses. Innovation does, after all, come from the edges.

But how does Netflix’s approach impact the usability of heavily defined platforms such as Xbox One? The below comments from the Xbox Forums highlight some opinions from users following their update to their own branded experience.

"It doesn't even feel like Xbox anymore, it doesn’t have that tile theme."

"The new UI is confusing, all the buttons seem to do random things and there isn't any information to tell you what the controller can do."

"All gesture controls are gone for me, anything I do is delayed by seconds."

These comments signify a number of issues: For an app to work sufficiently with the Kinect, certain rules need to be adhered to regarding selectable UI elements. The system has been designed with the Kinect in mind. In order to prevent inevitable technical failures, the apps should be too. The comments also express longing for system familiarity; therefore landing us back to the opening argument where platform consistency wins.

Chief Interaction Officer at Possible, Dale Herigstad, refers to the term ‘purgatory’ in a TV context. Similarly to Davide Zordan, he describes an approach that sits between the realms of system and product, but takes this philosophy further by suggesting a top-down approach: The user enters an application with familiar, system-like navigation on the top level, however as they venture deeper through the layers of the app they are eased into the bespoke interactions of the product. By doing this, it avoids throwing the user into an unfamiliar environment upon entering the app, therefore creating a more seamless experience between system and product.

Conclusion

The subject of this article is a discussion I have found myself in a number of times when designing TV products. Until now the nature of my career has always conditioned me to place user experience and design at the forefront. Through the consideration of technology, product and design as equal players, it has become clear (with valid justification from each) that they all have the potential to contradict each other in terms of the best implementation of a cross platform TV product.

Why are TV design templates in place?

It seems there are certain levels of uniqueness in the navigation paradigms of most TV platforms. With products such as Xbox being noticeably unique, it bodes a greater risk in terms of user experience when products come along with their own standardised UX models.

With Xbox spending 10 years refining their systems, it's unsurprising that they create templates to show off their platform capabilities; particularly with external devices such as the Kinect relying upon certain UI elements. With regards to the wealth of design knowledge they have in crafting interactive TV experiences, it goes without saying that products should certainly keep their learnings in mind when designing their own apps.

It is clear that templates can also be effective at ensuring the app works intuitively with the platform to provide the best user experience. Therefore can also be beneficial for smaller, less established brands in terms of retaining a satisfied user base and getting their product on the market quickly.

Should the UX model of the product overpower the ‘expected’ UX model of the platform?

After spending two years predominantly designing Xbox apps, my former views lay firmly in favour of sticking to the UX model of the system from a user familiarity standpoint. Upon re-approaching the subject from a more impartial angle, the negative implications that this approach (alone) could have on a multi platform product have become clear. It appears that there isn’t straightforward answer to this question, I believe there are certain responsibilities for both a system and a product to ensure the best experience for the end user:

From a system perspective, there is something to be said for the design of a scalable TV app framework, providing third parties with a system vocabulary. One that showcases the platform capabilities, ensures that it works correctly with companion devices (input device and Kinect), but is also flexible enough to accommodate for a diverse range of product requirements and bespoke features. Providing relevant documentation (such as UX and UI guidelines) is also an opportunity for the platform to highlight best practice design, particularly for designers who have limited knowledge in this field.

Amazon Fire TV app guidelines

Source: Amazon Design and UX Guidelines

It is now evident that building entirely separate experiences across TV platforms is an inefficient and expensive solution. One that could greatly impact the versatility of a product, and consequently its competitive position in the market. Therefore as well as the platform providing a flexible system to build from, it is also the responsibility of the product to adopt a judicious design approach across the TV platforms they intend to situate themselves on. Gaining a prior understanding of the system characteristics and constraints of each will highlight where the (inevitable) cross platform disparities will be.

Performance - Transitions can be used to communicate directional navigation when travelling through the layers of an app. But due to performance variations across platforms, transitions are an element that will vary the most. In previous projects, designing from the top down has proved an effective approach. By eliminating transitions in succession whilst moving down the performance scale, it ensures that a system is used at its full potential.

System Patterns - Whether it be down to legacy, user base or input device, it is clear that the interaction patterns on some platforms are more distinct than others. At a high level this can involve horizontal vs vertical navigation. Granted, it is difficult to accommodate for such vast differences as this. But it is important for designers to understand and compare the cross platform system patterns prior to entering the concept phase. In this way informed decisions can be made when designing their own model, minimising the risk of the chosen model causing a completely unfamiliar user experience.

Input Device - As the primary function of games consoles and a smart TVs largely differ, so does the input device that accompanies them. However there is one control that they all currently have in common: the D-Pad.

Products such as Now TV and Netflix have proved that is possible to utilise a spatial navigation model that does not rely upon additional controls (such as colour buttons) to work effectively. This not only provides a scalable product solution, but also minimises the user having to constantly look at the remote while navigating.

Although TVs are growing to be more interactive by the day, they remain to be the lean back device of the living room. A product that compliments this quality requires simplicity and consistency, accompanied by injections of personalised innovations.

It remains unclear as to who carries the torch following the recent burst of IPTV platforms. As each embody such distinct UX models, it is clear that common navigation paradigms in a TV context are still very much undefined. Whether cross platform patterns move closer together or further apart, it will be interesting to see how products and platforms evolve together.

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