The Interactive TV You Already Use

We have been waiting forever for interactive television, but Peter Yared of Webtrends argues that it’s already here. It’s just not happening on our television sets, where we had always imagined elaborate user interface layers would be superimposed onto the channel-tuning paradigm we’ve been familiar with for so long.

Instead, consumers have opted to leave their televisions relatively untouched — and simple — while supplementing their viewing experiences with other digital devices: laptops, smart phones and tablets. You’ve probably done this yourself: in the middle of watching a movie at home you spot a an actor or actress who looks familiar but whose name you can’t recall; out comes the laptop or iPhone, where a quick Internet Movie Database lookup scratches that itch. Or, you’re catching up on the back catalog of a popular television show that’s particularly engrossing, so you go searching the Web for commentary, background material, and hypotheses about why the heck there was a polar bear on that island.

A Screen Is a Screen Except When It’s Not

Why are people using these other devices instead of the television itself? Yared suggests the reason is that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to design a good application interface for a television screen. He writes:

“Using a remote control to navigate across a bunch of app features is slow and confusing. In the process, you annoy everyone else watching the TV.”

Again, I think that’s completely right: it’s no fun to navigate just about any interface on a television screen, and not just because most of them are so poorly designed. Even with the best interfaces — and few TV interfaces would qualify as among the best of anything — it’s a special kind of frustration to watch someone else manipulating a cursor or some other kind of U.I. selector while you, as a passive viewer, have no control over where it goes or what it does. This is what makes the televisions screen so different from other screens: our phones, laptops and tablets are single-user experiences but a television is a communal experience. What’s tolerable to me as I decipher and negotiate an app’s interface is tedium incarnate to observers — plus it just makes for bad television.

All of this goes to making a point that I repeat often: every design solution must be native to its intended medium. Even though two media may look similar, may share many similar qualities, may even target the same users, in almost every case they will be different in fundamental ways, and users will expect interfaces to respect what makes each unique. It’s unrealistic to expect that the sort of interface you might find on a desktop application or even a mobile application will work on a television, and yet that was more or less Google TV’s approach. Similarly, it’s also unrealistic to expect a tablet computer to work like a print magazine, but then again everyone knows that.

  1. Half agree. And I’ve said as much in other blog posts.

    But as far as the thought that it’s impossible to make an on-screen interaction work, do none of you people have DVRs? TiVo, or (my favorite) Dish network. At my house, for TEN YEARS we’ve been using this to good effect, and routinely as a collaborative effort.

    And I want some interactive TV, dammit. How about this simple thing: I see an ad for a new series. I pause and… press the search key and TYPE THE NAME. Seriously? They can’t even get their act together enough to pass some meta data to allow existing interfaces to work better?

    When I see what Google TV came up with, I have poor hopes also, but don’t just focus on what that does, or how Apple TV works or how a Windows Media Center PC looks. There are interfaces for TV all around us. Which work okay, if not very, very well.

  2. Nice assessment. I concur for the most part.

    The only TV-oriented interface I’d call intuitive was one invented by Nintendo back in 2006: the Wii’s “channel” menu. You just point the remote at what you want—say, the Netflix channel—and hit the giant A button. Looking at it now, Apple clearly took some inspiration from it when creating iOS’ home screen launcher.

    Unfortunately, an IR sensor bar placed above or below the TV is required for it to work, something no TV ships with. But with HDTVs becoming the norm, maybe a remote that can “see” what it’s pointing will become possible.

    Have you ever used/toyed with the Wii’s channel menu, Khoi?

  3. I don’t have a Wii, admittedly, but I have used them at friends’ houses. Either I’m strange, or the point-at-it interface gets much better with practice, because in use it drives me *crazy*. I never seem to have the fine motor control needed to point at the specific block on the Wii’s menu system, and either move the pointer too little to change the selection, or too quickly and overshoot the desired selection.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.