Switching on to the new TV guide

Yolanda Zappaterra explains the opportunities digital TV will offer designers, and takes a closer look at the design of ONdigital’s electronic programme guidE.

So, you’ve got your head around what it is, how it works and what it will offer viewers, broadcasters and advertising, but what about the wealth of opportunities it offers design? Yes, we’re talking digital TV – and, specifically, the launch last month of digital terrestrial broadcaster ONdigital.

While Sky and BBC Choice also unveiled digital offers last month, it was the Carlton/Granada-owned ONdigital, with its bold Wolff Olins identity and 90m promotional campaign, that captured the attention. By providing what it says is the simplest point of entry to digital TV, ONdigital is hoping to sign up the two million households it needs to break even.

At the heart of its offer is simplicity; in choice, selection, payment, installation and finally on-screen guide or the electronic programme guide created by London agency Nykris Digital Design with digital media consulting company Qureshi & Associates.

Ten-strong Nykris boasts an impressive range of multi-media work and clients, including interactive news and navigation kiosks for London’s Science Museum, websites for BBC Choice and Unilever and multimedia work for the Department of Trade and Industry and German government.

Originally a two-person outfit comprising graphic designers Chris Prior and Nikki Barton, the team now includes members with experience in software engineering, music production and project management. That, coupled with Qureshi’s background in consultancy on digital TV, EPGs and TV production, made them the perfect team to, as Barton says, “take Wolff Olins’ corporate branding online in a clear, simple and easy-to-use way”.

The production, development and design of the on-screen guide took some six weeks, and began with the development of a software prototype. This was then passed to the engineering teams working with the software in the set-top boxes. This software system, known as MHEG, enables page creation featuring text, graphics and interactive services.

With digital’s range of more than 200 colours as opposed to analogue’s seven, designers will be able to produce high-quality graphics a million miles from sad text-based pages like Teletext. For ONdigital’s on-screen guide, Nykris followed the developer’s guidelines to arrive at a refined model that “worked very well, despite initial reservations and worries about the design aspects getting smothered by coding and functionality”, says Prior.

ONdigital’s main screen – performing a similar function to a homepage – is what Prior calls the pilot: a straightforward graphical navigation screen consisting of links to daily programme guides, parental lock, timer setting, online subscription, online pay-to-view facilities and the all-important interaction button. Icons next to the programme’s name indicate things like favourite programmes (a heart) and pay-to-view programmes or films (a sign).

In addition, using a special remote control allows you to quickly scroll through these different forms of information; four colour-coded buttons relate to on-screen buttons, which do things like take you through each channel and pull up a semi-opaque information bar, to find out what you’re watching and what’s on next.

“Philip [Read] has lots of experience developing interactive TV, and has been involved with lots of focus groups to determine how people use these systems and what they want from them, and the research showed that they wanted something very straightforward,” explains Prior.

But could the guide’s very simplicity present a problem for the broadcaster? After all, you would assume that TV planning for an evening is something most viewers would regard as a basic, and that a weekly overview is something we’ve all come to expect as a given through our huge range of printed TV guides.

Prior believes not. “Given the research and discussions with ONdigital, we felt information for the entire day or week wasn’t that useful,” he says. At this stage, when TV interactivity, on-screen functions and two-way communication are still very much in their infancy, he may be right, and it might well make sense to gently familiarise technophobic couch potatoes with the technology before terrifying them with a bombardment of information.

So ONdigital still has to provide its subscribers with a printed monthly guide so, in that sense, its EPG isn’t really an EPG at all. But Prior feels it’s fulfilled what Nykris originally saw as a two-fold objective.

“We wanted to produce something fresh that would follow the branding, and answer the initial requirements of the client and its users,” he says happily.

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