In December 2009 I wrote this thing about TV Apps and how great it would be to have an app ecosystem for Connected TVs. Now there are habsolutely loads of them - Samsung, Boxee, the ill-fated GoogleTV (RIP), the embryonic YouView and even Apple (somewhat vicariously through iOS) are all trying to pull off the App Store model. Unfortunately, it's all a bit shit at the moment.
Unfortunately, right now we're still not seeing a single platform successful enough to make this really exciting for designers and developers. In advance of such a happening, I'd like to provoke some debate about things that might be important when designing apps for the TV.
I'd love to know your thoughts on these and welcome any additions.
TV doesn't need a can of Social sprayed onto it
When I was a kid there were 4 channels and you would simply use the up and down buttons on the remote to see what was on right now.
Admittedly there was never anything good on but is it all that different today? You'd buy the Radio Times to see what was on when, if you were an organised type. But generally you'd just hear from friends what they're currently enjoying. Of course, all this still happens, there's just a lot more ways of getting recommendations and more ways to watch.
There are hundreds of new startups trying to get people 'checking-in' to their favourite TV shows, getting social recommendations or talking about the show while it's on. The truth is that TV has always been very social and it's going to be incredibly difficult to improve on this.
Given current viewer behaviour, the obvious way to capitalise on social media activity around TV isn't to use TV check-in services. What broadcasters and producers really need to do is to make TV much much worse, spend way more money, hire worse actors, get cheaper sets and generally create way more annoying telly. If producers want more people to be 'engaging online with the show' they need to make sure people can royally rip the piss out of the cast and impress their friends with their razor sharp patter. Bad TV is what gets people talking about TV.
I don't think he intended it, but Tim Berners-Lee created a vast, bottomless pit of sarcasm and vitriol.
TV apps are not mobile apps
It might seem obvious but the most popular apps in the mobile app stores tend to exploit the feature-set and use cases of the device itself. Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja exploit the haptic sensitivity of the iPhone's touchscreen, WhatsApp enables people to chat for free between many different networks and devices. Likewise, successful TV apps will utilise the affordances of TV - the remote control, the 10' distance, the lean-back state of mind and the shared viewing experience.
TV apps couldn't be further removed from mobile apps, let's not try to port successful apps from mobiles onto TV.
Apps and channels should be synonymous
YouView's approach is interesting in that it treats apps and channels as the same thing. By default, major broadcasters such as Channel4, ITV, BBC, Sky etc will all have their own app, which will behave like a channel. It will serve metadata to the EPG and will serve video on demand over the web for programmes in the past and utilise the TV tuner for stuff that's on right now. This is a simple and clean way to do it. Channels are a familiar concept.
Viewers expect to turn on a channel (i.e. app) and for it to be playing something that's on right now. Any channel that has a (God forbid) 'landing page' presenting you with options on genres, categories, recommendations etc is creating an immediate barrier. This means apps should probably run on a schedule - an odd concept if you're used to designing for the web or mobile.
The schedule works
When you sit down in front of a TV, you’ve made two key decisions. You’ve chosen the time to sit down and you’ve chosen the channel. Someone has thought long and hard about what you might like at that time of night given the decisions made. They’ve negotiated with other channels to make it so that there’s limited clashing, they’ve procured the rights for that thing for you to watch. It’s an art form, and for the most part it works. Yes, of course many people want to choose what they want to watch, when then want to watch it. But mass market TV consumption is about people sitting down and saying "Right, what've you got for me?".
The massive is passive
The term "Interactive TV" is an oxymoron. Most people simply enjoy (and always will) sitting back and being spoon-fed entertainment by their TV. TV is already a near-perfect medium. It’s utterly sublime in its simplicity. The viewer is the viewer, their job is clear in this context. Despite hundreds of channels being available, most people stick to the handful they know, love and rely on to give them what they want. This is just human nature. Small wonder the average Brit still watches over 4 hours every day.
The ideal Connected TV experience isn't the web on TV, and it’s not TV on the web, it’s something new, something inbetween. It’s something that takes all the awesome stuff the web is good at - supermassive abundance, friends as filters, smart recommendations, snark, integrated-ness, on-demand-ness, videos of cats and offers it up in a linear, convenient, lean-back and passive manner, in the way that TV does really well.