The perfect UI for TV? A crucial moving target

Here’s an acronym that, if you’re not familiar with it now, you will be soon, because it increasingly describes vendors in the media industry: B2B4C… business-to-business for the consumer. Call it part of the consumer revolution, the move from “content is king” to “consumer is king.”

It’s a term you’ll often hear when designers of user interfaces get together to talk about the future.

At IBC last week, UI was a hot topic, with a number of companies at the show sharing their visions of the current and future trends they expect the industry to take. Here’s some of what they had to say:

A trend toward more graphical interfaces

Text-heavy, or boring interfaces are going to lose out to interfaces that are increasingly graphical, relying less on the standard tiles that originally defined apps and more on interactive visual content.

The standard apps that the ecosystem has so far been built upon are revolving quickly, targeting better integration with content and with search and discovery.

“TV is reinventing itself over and over,” says Sacha Prueter, head of Android TV at Google. Prueter believes that as more content comes online, it will be difficult to keep a content grazing consumer in a single environment; they’ve already learned that content is available from multiple sources and making sure you help them navigate easily may be a key to keeping them on – or at least coming back to – your platform.

“Companies will have to learn how to innovate quickly and leverage device types to fit specific viewer expectations and experiences,” he adds.

Voice also is coming into vogue, but there are challenges and risks involved. And the big question: How do you persuade viewers to talk to their TVs?

“Voice is becoming a must have. Xfiniy is spending an obscene amount of money to get the consumer to talk to his box,” Michael Hawkey, SVP & GM for TiVo’s discovery business group, says. But making that connection should be easier.

“Users shouldn’t have to talk in a key-word friendly order to get what they want because that isn’t natural,” he insists. Instead, developing UIs that understand natural language – and its syntax – will be key.

Prueter, meanwhile, believes widespread consumer adoption of a voice interface might not be that far off, citing the success of Siri, Amazon’s Echo, Google’s voice assistant and others like Roku.

While some people may take longer than others, “there will be family members who use voice immediately, others will stay with remotes,” he says. “(Change) is coming slowly and it will be accepted.”

The bigger concern, he believes, is offering voice as a primary interface before it’s ready.

“If you introduce the technology too early and burn the user, you lose that consumer,” Prueter says.

The best interfaces have the smallest impact on the user experience

It’s not hard to see that today’s TV viewing experience has become more fragmented than ever before on the content front.

Broadcast TV, traditional pay TV with dozens of broadcast and cable network choices, SVOD services, AVOD and freemium services, TVOD, EST and any combination of the above have served to create a massive queue of content.

But that audience fragmentation has been further divided by an array of hardware, including: SmartTVs; tablets; smartphones; Roku boxes; Apple TVs; Amazon Fire TV sticks; Chromecasts and other devices that also have brought with them a slew of remotes that clutter coffee tables and can create Goldbergesque content search and discovery rituals.

The next generation of UI will have more in common with today’s nascent heads-up-display (HUD) technology that’s begun to appear in cars – graphical displays on a windshield that show traffic conditions with lane colors, a driver’s speed, road conditions and the route to a destination without being distracting – than they do with current electronic guides. And they’ll be more immersive than guides like those of SVOD services like Netflix offer.

Like the auto industry’s unobtrusive HUD co-pilots that also can quickly reveal places to get fuel, food or rest, guides will offer an easier path to content.

The key will be seamlessly connecting consumers with content… without getting in the way.

And, while we have all accepted that Millennials are the viewers of the future (we have, haven’t we?), it’s important not to leave the viewers of today out of the picture.

Because for all the content being consumed by users comfortable with a lean-forward approach to discovery, there’s more being consumed by viewers who prefer a lean-back approach. Channel surfing is far from dead.

TV nirvana? An experience that is simple, that transfers from device to device with (perhaps) one remote and that delivers stress-free search and discovery.

Discovery has to be as compelling as the content

While analytics helps deliver more relevant content recommendations, making search and discovery easier to use and more productive, that still doesn’t guarantee a viewer will click on a title, or another, or another.

Tivo’s Hawkey, says he believes a more visually rich interface will help drive engagement.

“Discovery of content has to be as compelling to do as content is to watch,” Hawkey says. “It’s consumer driven. B2B4C. It is about the consumer. If you don’t listen to the consumer first…regardless of age or device they watch on” you won’t succeed.

“You need to pay attention to what they want. How they use it, take the feedback you get.”

To that end, he believes, UIs will need to be cloud based to maintain the flexibility they need.

“We don’t have time to wait and throw money at a viewer who has no patience,” he says, adding that UIs need to be capable of gathering user data across devices.

Watching what you want shouldn’t be work

User interfaces have to have the viewer in mind from the beginning because in the end, it’s all about helping the customer consume as much of your content on your platforms as possible. At the very least, you want them coming back from other platforms as often as possible.

“Consumer’s objectives when they sit in front of the TV is to relax, to sit down on the sofa and get to something they’re going to enjoy and to help them decide where they’ll go next,” says Richard Dowling, ThinkAnalytics, VP of product services.

And, as content surges online, that gets more difficult.

“It’s really about how you address increasing choice without having to make increasing decisions,” adds Brennan Hole, TV and Content Architect for BT. “The information sharing you do with them is probably the biggest challenge. Once you get a customer there you want to keep them.”

But even with more graphical, interactive UIs that unobtrusively guide – rather than bully – users into engaging with content come online, there’s constant change to content with.

“Technology changes a lot, so does content. How do you react quickly?” asks Google’s Prueter. “In five years it could be holographic presentation… how do we react to that?”

The current crop of apps, Prueter contends, aren’t necessarily the ideal way to help consumers navigate content collections.

“They create a silo with a certain experience for the user. When you leave that, you go into another silo,” he says. “We’re looking to create bridges between these silos; search that spans apps. Search for Game of Thrones and HBO app shows up. Search for Cards and Netflix shows up.”

The problem, of course, is that a platform wants users to stay engaged on their platform, not someone else’s.

“Companies will always ask, ‘Why is my content not coming up first,’” says Prueter.

That’s a hard bridge to cross, one that UI architects will turn themselves inside out to answer. But they need to be cautious.

“The challenge is: Don’t destroy the content in the process; Don’t destroy the technology in the process,” adds Dowling.

Stay tuned.

Jim O’Neill is Editor of Videomind and Principal Analyst at Brightcove. You can follow him on Twitter @JimONeillMedia and on LinkedIn