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How to bring IPTV forward

August 27th, 2008 · No Comments

How user-focused innovation can accelerate mass adoption of IPTV

From iptv-news, a very nice article (the emphasis is ours):
When it comes to mass market consumerism there are four products that chart modern life; the car, the mobile phone, the PC and the television. Each, to varying extents, is experiencing levels of convergence, especially from the pull generated by the broadening distribution of digital content. So why, despite analyst predictions, have we yet to see the mass adoption of IPTV services? Gus Desbarats, Chairman of design consultancy TheAlloy, argues that the challenge originates from deep rooted misunderstanding of the user experience, an area better tackled by the design industry.

The human drivers
We humans are amazing. We have complex value perceptions and diverse abilities. This is why it is so challenging to create electronic products and services that deliver complete satisfaction. But, when a product or service is completely instinctive, it is a magical experience, and projects the product or service beyond a box of electronics into something that people cherish. Creating this kind of user experience is certainly not easy, but it is why I became a designer and it remains the aspiration of engineers, designers and marketers.

More than ever, our homes are an oasis of rich personal choice; today we can consume information in so many ways, in many places, without compromise. Yet we still love to have choices, and we embrace inspirational environments that aid choice. Who hasn’t spent an hour browsing through a bookshop or library just for the sake of seeing what they can find? It is a leisure activity in its own right. And when that process results in an unexpected discovery there is a huge pay off, far beyond the basic experience of scanning a TV list to see what’s on. Even successful IT browsing experiences like Google or Amazon look and feel more like work than fun.

Replicating the experience of inspirational browsing – with the sense of fun that comes from exploring and the excitement from discovery – is what IPTV services need to achieve. To do this they must create an environment that hooks the viewer, generating simple ways of finding known content, reinforcing the delight of classical browsing, but also introducing new content that is relevant by converting critical reviews into new interest. Get this right and a service encourages loyalty beyond any rational perception.

Hooking the audience
So many discussions about the potential of IPTV revolve around the quality of the content, and though we should never lose sight of that argument – bad content is bad no matter how slickly it is delivered – unless there is real investment in terms of design and innovation for the delivery of the user experience, people will not be able to get as far as the content at all.

When usability in technology is discussed, the conversation usually reverts to Apple. So what is it that Apple does that is different and why does Apple seemingly have a monopoly on usability goodwill?

Apple has tremendous impact because of the way it approaches the needs of the user. The company has a different agenda, one that is driven by improving the user experience and where investment into this area is prioritised. This is an important lesson because many companies try (and fail) to match the look and feel of Apple’s products. But this is not the answer – the key issue is not to match the look of an Apple device but to match Apple’s investment priorities. Apple did not invent the MP3 player – they invested in making digital music consumption a rich and intuitive user experience. This is not just about infrastructure, standards and delivery methods. This is about the attention to detail that gives people a service they cannot live without.

Driving the user experience
Technology can be a home for very rich and compelling experiences. It can engage our instincts to browse: for example, iTunes’ ‘cover flow’ view makes it simple to view, and choose content in an intuitive way – it is literally like flicking through your record collection. It recognises the notion that images are a factor in music selection, that it can be more important to visualise than see a list, that emotion is driven by more than simply lists.

Browsing can be a fun activity in an environment where we can personalise our experiences – think Nintendo, with the Mii customisation within the Wii, Google Lively or Sony’s forthcoming Home. The latter is an excellent example of a service that embraces visual richness to recreate a depth and realism that we have come to expect from our next generation home gaming platforms, but one created for search, social interaction and critically content discovery and sharing. Compare this with the current crop of IPTV UIs that owe more to a hotel TV system than a compelling home entertainment environment.
When technology gets it right it can transform the simple and mundane into something special: jpegs are more than a collation of pixel data; they can even transcend basic imagery, because they have within them the power to encapsulate shared memories and drive an emotional response. Being able to capture human instinct within a technology is what leads to mass adoption. To date, IPTV has not achieved this. The focus has been on the technology and how to deliver content over networks, rather than the issue of masking technology and delivering simple and intuitive user benefit. For IPTV to live up to its potential, more than bandwidth is required.

Bringing IPTV to the user
IPTV should deliver a compelling and human friendly experience: it can enable the user to browse thousands of titles, choosing what they want to watch to suit their mood or discovering a long forgotten classic that can be enjoyed again. IPTV has the potential to bring together the best aspects of a visiting a High St music store like HMV, reading the reviews in the Times Literary Supplement and the immersing yourself in the graphical landscape of the PS3 and personal interface of the Wii. This is a rich and compelling human experience, the kind of experience people want and will pay for. Yet to date IPTV has been overshadowed by the success of satellite and cable.

Breaking out of orbit
IPTV’s competitors have set standards for the technology to live up to. The Sky+ service is both smart and simple. This service, offering features such as series linking, has been transforming the fundamentals of viewing, enabling people to watch what they want when they want, reliably, with negligible investment in irritating ‘set up time’. It is a step in the right direction, and despite the fact that there are still time based limitations when browsing on Sky+ EPG, demand has been huge.

IPTV needs to do more than the satellite world. To be a success, to achieve full potential, IPTV will need to build from first principles, embracing the unique programming opportunities that it offers in a complimentary manner alongside the already embedded user base of satellite or Freeview users.

IPTV can emulate and improve on the changes in behaviour that Sky+ is driving, turning the EPG into a content rich interface, one that emulates the browsing experience, driven by quality and nature of content rather than schedule. We need to break out of the habit of taking all our inspiration from the Satellite, or hotel ‘on demand’ markets. When it comes to creating the User Interface, we need to be embracing inspiration from much further afield. We need to learn from sites like YouTube, Facebook and MySpace, where one experience leads naturally to another. Critically we need to recognise and improve on those that are familiar and embraced by the technology user in the home: Sky+, Mii, i-Tunes, and the next generation of service typified by Lively and Home. Equally we need to look backwards, to understand the dynamics of ‘long-tail’ distribution like the entertainment value of critical reviews, the ‘fast or deep’ visual planning of a bookshop, or critically the tight connection of browsing to purchase, with actual consumption something to look forward to later.

If the industry can achieve an intuitive and compelling user experience, IPTV will create the feeling of browsing the biggest video library in the world in real time, driving greater consumption and creating demand for a wide range of professionally created content. In effect IPTV needs to can deliver even more for professional content than YouTube has for User Generated Content. Both need to offer a vast library of media, easily searchable and simply and effectively connected in a smart way, but where IPTV offer by far the richer, more entertaining discovery process.

IPTV for all
We all recognise the need to increase the take up of broadband and improve the delivery of bandwidth to meet the needs of broadcast quality IPTV consumption, especially HD downloads or streaming. Equally important is ensuring that the service reflects human needs and desires, is simple to access and use and provides an experience that people will love. To do this requires investment, but this investment will pay significant returns.

For a designer, whether of a real product such as a set top box, a virtual product like software UI, or a web interface, the ultimate aim is to deliver an experience that is as intuitive as it can possibly be. This is what gets us out of bed in the morning. This is achieved no only through an in-depth awareness and understanding of a user’s needs, but also through the meticulous conversion of better user insight into better products.

I believe IPTV will become a mass consumer product and deliver real human benefit. It is certainly true that the network backbone will need to be robust enough to deliver all of the time. But I passionately believe it is also true that the most important part of the network is that critical last millimetre – where the network interfaces with the human being – because if that interface is broken, all the bandwidth and choices in the world will not be able to fix it.

Some observations from us

  1. Put the user experience as first priciple of design is hard to argue with, but often forgotten, especially in a techno centric view of (most) engineers
  2. Apple and Sky+ provide very useful examples. It’s not about technology, it’s about user experience
  3. IPTV has so many daunting possibilities, this can be intimidating, the article has it right that it needs to strike a balance between easy finding of the familiar and at the same time offer the exciting browsing for new stuff experience of the bookshop.

Tags: SIGM