What TV needs now…


This is the kind of thing I think about a lot in my job at the BBC. I’m very lucky to be stationed with a fantastic group of like minded people and a hierarchy upwards which I do respect. (Not many people can say that).

So when I explain to people what I do, I tend to make some reference to researching trends and watching the hackers scratch there own itches. It doesn’t sound that exciting to the general public or potential dates but you all know how excited I get about it. Anyway the point of this un-scientific test is I’m hoping to do more stuff like this. In actual fact I actually threw this idea around as a project a while ago. Its great to know we’re not the only one thinking about this stuff.

During a panel at our TVnext summit yesterday, we showed a video with highlights from a recent experiment. For this experiment, we had invited several families to give up their cable and instead use a “connected TV” device for one week following last Christmas.

The results might sound surprising but to be honest, I could have guessed most of them from the time I’ve spent with the hackers.

Nicely Iiya broke it down the learning into some nice digestible pieces, something I certainly need to learn to do much better.

While our sample was by no means representative, the results of our experiment point us toward some real issues that one should consider when thinking about the future of the “connected TV” technologies.

One finding that is probably obvious in retrospect is that TV is invisible until it’s shut off. It’s a bit like walking: you are aware of the direction in which you are headed but you don’t really focus on the individual steps until you come across an unusual terrain. The exclusively on-demand nature of the devices we tested is just such an unusual terrain that makes you think not only about “where” but also about the specifics of “how”.

The devices demand a lean-forward involvement with what has been traditionally considered a lean-back medium, and this requirement proved disconcerting to many when it lasted longer than the usual bursts of involvement with their DVRs or video-on-demand channels.

The Paradox Of Choice

Constantly having to pick what to watch next was daunting not only because it interrupted the usual flow of TV-time activities in the house or required interacting with unfamiliar interfaces but also because of the cognitive load involved in considering all of the numerous content alternatives. “I don’t want to have to think about it” was one of the strongest sentiments we’ve captured in our interviews. As with “the paradox of choice” phenomenon that describes how broadening the range of options leads to a decrease in overall consumption, we saw how families gave up on watching TV altogether when they couldn’t decide what it is that they wanted to watch. This problem is serious enough for Netflix to award a million-dollar prize for a better way to tell people what they should watch next; it didn’t seem the problem was sufficiently addressed by any of the devices.

The paradox of choice gets stronger and stronger the more options there are. Even in my own behavior, I tend to end up watching films which are on TV although I got the HD version with Dolby Digital or DTS surround sound on my home server within 1 minutes reach.

In actual fact, i’m going to from now on make the choice to move over to my own version when I see a duplicate on TV which has me interested.


People have well-formed expectations about how a TV should work, and the devices didn’t seem to confirm well to these mental models. Surfing TV channels is seamless; “tasting” unfamiliar on-demand shows includes picking them from different menu categories and waiting for them to buffer first (and often paying for them up-front). This latency is tolerated in exchange for high-consideration longer-form content but it becomes too much of a friction when all one wants is the “in-n-out” material.

Agreed, the interface on most of the on-demand devices are either hideous or non-intuitive. But there are those which take a risk and try new things. The world of hardware moves very slowly and so we won’t see much change from most of the set top makers. However there has been more development in the space. Some of the forward looking makers are buying or partnering with creative software developers who are creating the rich and intuitive interfaces using just software.


The lack of search spanning multiple video services on a single box was a usability flaw that stood out among other complaints that could be attributed to our users’ brief experience with unfamiliar technology. From the users’ perspective, there is no reason why they had to search the Netflix, Amazon On Demand and other services individually while looking for a particular piece of content on a single device.

Agreed, its all a bit of a mess at the moment. different guides and different structures. Even if there was a global search it would be one heck of a job trying to communicate the different options available to the audience.

Its a fantastic challenge and to be honest, one of the many reasons why I love my job.

Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.