Improving the user experience of TV

The interface(s)
TV watching is mostly a ‘lean back’ activity, I want to sit back, relax and be entertained without having to do too much. This used to be the case when there were only a handful of free, terrestrial channels and VHS or DVD but TV is now a lot more complicated and fragmented with cable, satellite and on-demand services. When I sit down and want to find a show or a film there are quite a few places to look:
– Live TV
– Personal digital film library (from a PC)
– DVDs
– Recorded programmes on a PVR
– Catch-up TV: BBC iPlayer, ITV player, Channel 5 player, Channel 4 OD
– On-demand services e.g. Netflix that may be accessed from a variety of sources such as Apple TV, consoles etc.
When thinking about what to watch, the user (they’re now users rather than merely viewers) needs to remember all the different places to look; each one has its own interface (and ‘Smart TV’ itself has its own interface) and sometimes remote control that both needs to be learned and switched between resulting in a high cognitive load. A solution that combines these services into a single, unified interface would hugely improve the user experience. This is not as difficult to achieve as it might seem, YouView has already taken a step in this direction, although this lacks in a number of areas.
Content discovery
Another consequence of this is that there’s no centralised place to discover content. Although it’s true that people do choose to watch channels (“Channel 4 OD often has things I like so I’ll browse that”), they also like to choose specific programmes, genres or want to be enticed with what’s hot or new, somewhat independent of the content provider. Various TV services currently do a poor job of suggesting the most relevant content and they don’t talk to each other, or to your friends. Even BBC iPlayer doesn’t offer Facebook login or much opportunity to rate programme’s that could be used to guide future recommendations.

Browsing web pages on the TV – it just doesn’t work sitting back, and from that distance and it takes us away from what we’re watching. It’s not surprising that not many people are using this functionality that comes bundled with Smart TVs. Besides, we have phones and tablets for that. Some sites do make sense, such as YouTube, but these are better re-designed for the platform and presented as an app or a channel, as they have started doing. Other sites, such as BBC News, would be better becoming hybrid sites/apps/channels with an emphasis on browsable video content.
Interaction methods
What is not the way forward, as some high profile companies think, is a hugely complicated remote control with a physical keyboard. They don’t fit in our hands, they require too much effort for most people and we need to look at them to use them. Which also rules out touch screen remote controls, at least for the main functions, e.g. volume, where it requires so little effort to use these without having to look. A small touch screen might be useful for secondary contextual functionality which would avoid the need for tons of buttons, for example to provide a keyboard for occasional use. There are various new methods coming onto the market now from voice to gesture and these may have a place but great care needs to be given to how they work and which functions they are suited to. For example, arm waving is never going to be practical, at least not for frequently used functions, there might be room for simpler flick gestures that don’t require much movement or effort but this would have to have a clear benefit over pressing physical buttons that require little effort or learning curve. Talking to technology is still a little strange and requires more effort than you think but voice might have a place if the alternative would be to type.
Apps have a place on TVs but as with any platform certain types will be more suited to it than others. TV or video apps mostly shouldn’t have separate interfaces, as I’ve outlined above, smaller production companies could still get space on the main interface, in a similar way that the iTunes music store handles the long tail of artists. On the TV you might want to search for an independent service and add this to your main channel roster so it becomes part of the main channel guide interface. Games is an obvious category that would work well, large numbers of people already use consoles with their TV’s and apps would mean many gamers could be happy without buying a console.
To improve the user experience of TV I would like to see:
– All content available through a single interface
– Great content recommendations based on my viewing habits, ratings and those of my friends drawn from all content providers
– Hardware that incorporates set top box functionality to reduce clutter
– Faster processing and loading of content (remember what Google said about speed being a feature)
– A simple remote with a few physical buttons augmented by voice, possibly gesture and a small touch screen for the longer tail of less used functions.