Supply and demand

Following a huge upsurge in on-demand television, broadcasters are throwing their weight behind developing services that can be viewed on handheld devices such as smartphones and iPads, says Tom Banks

Broadcasters’ on-demand services are moving beyond conventional Web browsers on to handheld devices through apps and beyond, to Internet TV service You View.

This migration is raising new challenges for in-house designers and external consultancies as they look to ensure a level of user interface consistency in a way that properly considers the interaction points of the device and the expectations of its users.

There has been an upsurge in the number of people consuming television through on-demand services. Channel 4’s 4oD app, designed by Nice Agency, launched on the iPad on 28 April and has been the best-seller on the platform since going live, according to the consultancy.

Nice Agency says it is currently helping Channel 4 analyse how the app is being received, but in time it expects to add extra functionality, beyond the 30-day catch-up service.

’We’re looking to provide archive and international content, stricter security and more features,’ says Nice Agency joint managing director Ryan Hall.

There are millions of ways to give people what they want – and listening to their exact requests isn’t always the best way

Philip O’Dwyer, Method

Hall, who says Nice Agency will also give ’device strategy’ for Channel 4 Android products, says, ’It’s about giving users the most content we can for devices or platforms that are preferable for the way they live their lives.’

Screen size is a key challenge when moving from Web to tablets and for the iPad, Nice Agency has fixed the screen in landscape with the idea of later introducing portrait.

The gamut of handheld devices available to watch TV on is broadening and this means that designers need to be aware of each one’s demand for gestures and physical touchpoints.

Nice Agency is already looking ahead to the UK arrival of the Blackberry Playbook this week, which will use an ’interactive bezel’, and is considering how best to design interfaces for it.

’A common mistake is taking a design and replicating it identically for another platform it’s inappropriate to move from iPad to Android without considering platform users and interaction points,’ says Hall.

There is, however, a consensus among broadcasters and consultancies that a unified look needs to be maintained, in spite of the nuances of each platform and the redesigned functionality each demands.

At the BBC, after help from Method on the social functions and user interface of version three of the iPlayer in May 2010, it was decided to develop the iPlayer for iPad in-house.

BBC executive creative director Marcelo Marer says the design has been made as ’homogeneous and consistent’ as possible, but he is aware of the demands of the device and its users.

’We’ve met the basic needs, but we can start adding more features,’ says Marer, who feels there is an expectation that iPad products should ’feel premium’.
The uptake of the iPlayer continues to gather pace. According to the BBC which hasn’t yet released figures for April March was its most popular month to date, with 160 million requests for TV and radio playback.

In the same month, live streaming was at an all-time high on the iPlayer, making up 15 per cent of all TV requests and 75 per cent of radio.

Marer is mindful of the ’curve of adoption’ when it comes to new platforms and recognises that in the same way it takes time for people to adopt new devices, it may take time for new interfaces to be accepted and liked.

By way of example, and as an aside, he says, ’In the beginning our news sites took a lot of flak, but people soon began to like them.’

Key to the success of the iPlayer’s design is a rejection of user testing in favour of trying to understand with foresight how an interface will best work, according to Marer.

’User research was useful 12 to 15 years ago, but our skills and experience, cross-referenced with quantitative data, business requirements and user needs’ amount to calculated risk,’ says Marer.

He says there have been cases of users requesting iPlayer features that were then designed in but subsequently taken out, ’as they were not being used’.

Method has worked with the BBC on the iPlayer and across a suite of interface designs for Channel Five’s Demand Five, including online playback, iPad and iPhone apps.

Method creative director Philip O’Dwyer says that user testing is best undertaken when a prototype has been worked up. ’For usability testing people don’t understand if you put a wireframe in front of them, so it is better to use a prototype.’

O’Dwyer adds, ’There are millions of ways to give people what they want and listening to their exact requests isn’t always the best way. It’s better to stand back and think overall how best to meet their needs. ’

The Channel Five iPad app is set to launch this autumn and it is ’halfway between a Web and a TV experience’, according to O’Dwyer. ’Focusing on the viewer, we’ve reduced the amount of clutter to give a cleaner experience,’ he says.

Method continues to work on three iPad projects, two for broadcasters and one for a news organisation all to be launched this year.

For O’Dwyer the challenges remain around users’ expectation. ’With a website, people expect certain standard behaviours, but people expect great things from apps, so we have to think about behaviour and the way a user interface feels and works,’ he says.

Requests for the BBC iPlayer for all platforms

  • December 2010 -145 million
  • January 2011 -162 million
  • February 2011 -148 million
  • March 2011 -160 million

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