TV Everywhere – Thoughts on designing for multiple devices

So I read an article on V-Net TV on DIRECTV’s multi-screen home ambitions, and I couldn’t help but get stuck on one line of the article – a quote by DIRECTV’s Senior VP of Engineering, Henry Derovanessian on designing for multiple platforms:

The key to making these blended services work across multiple platforms lies in building a consistent user interface across all devices so that consumers do not have to learn new tricks to access the same service on an iPhone, iPad, PC, and TV

And I began to think about this statement, and how true it really is, when designing for multiple devices.

Consistency is often spat out as one of the key design principles – But what facets are we talking about when we say we want to build a “consistent” user interface? What are we being consistent with? Does the fact that the user may be exposed to slightly different interactions models or interfaces really mean they have to learn “new tricks” ?

What are the things we actually need to consider when designing for multiple devices?

A consistent overarching experience of the service

An area I think that is increasingly important, but often overlooked (or beyond our control) is the overarching strategy for the overall experience of the “service” offered, across multiple devices.

The problem with the way we design can often be logistical – when brought in as consultants, we tend to work on projects which encapsulate only one part of the larger whole.  And this is particularly true when designing for TV Everywhere (or multiple platforms in general).  A consultant may be pulled in to work on one part – say, the iPhone application.  But there’s a broader eco-system to consider – and varying touch-points through which a user may experience the service and be exposed to the brand promise.

Often, we’re not privy to the broader “business strategy” that a company may have for their service.  But it really makes me wonder – have they truly considered their business strategy in line with user needs? I often feel that UX designers need to be involved much earlier in the process – perhaps even during the product/service strategy design. (Perhaps this is where the new field of “service design” starts to make its mark…)

As consultants, we tend to consider and focus our efforts on the part of the project we’re commissioned to do – and in many cases, we don’t have the luxury (or budget) to look much further than these bounds.  Yet, we know that the products and services we often quote as “great designs” tend to think about the end-to-end experience – beyond a single device or platform that is being designed for.

Even when design is done “inhouse”, businesses still typically split up into projects where individuals focus on one particular device or “product offering”.  And often, the broader strategy, or consistency of the service and overarching brand promise across multiple touch-points, is lost.

Considering the end-to-end experience

A highly mentioned example of “good, considered, design”  is the Apple iPod ecosystem – where the design was considered beyond the iPod itself, and included thoughts around the end-to-end user experience.  Asking questions about how a user finds and puts content onto the device itself was a crucial part in creating a unique experience that was a crucial feature in the iPod experience.

With more and more devices becoming ubiquitous in our day to day lives, it’s not uncommon for a user to have access to, and use a range of devices in a single day. It’s therefore important to consider the device touch-point, and context of use.  Even considering when in the day a user may be exposed to a device, and how likely they will be exposed to a service at that time is crucial.  Here’s an example:

When you consider the context of use, you begin to realise that simply porting the same feature set, and same user interface entirely to be “consistent”, is not a “well considered” design – rather, it’s the easy way out.  As designers, we need to think about where, when, why, a user would access a service, and what’s appropriate at various points in time.

Consistency, for consistency’s sake?

When we talk about being “consistent” across multiple devices, what do we mean, and what are we being consistent with? There are so many facets to consider about being consistent.

On the extreme end of consistency, we could for arguments sake, port the exact same interface design from one device to another.  But would porting a design whose interaction model is optimised for traditional d-pad remote navigation (up, down, left, right, select) translate well for other devices?

Would this then make things inconsistent, with the devices own paradigms and interaction models?  For example, ever notice that many iPad apps follow very similar interaction paradigms?

Having worked across multiple platforms, I know that each device has its own standard interaction models, and paradigms.  Varying TV manufacturers even have their own rules around what how colour buttons should be assigned.

In some cases, it may be more appropriate to be consistent to the device’s interaction models.

Take for example, a typical function of “back”.

When designing an application for the Playstation, for example, do you want to make sure you’re consistent with the keypresses on a Playstation controller that a user has “learnt” to apply to “back”, even if this therefore makes it inconsistent with how you’ve applied “back” in other interfaces?

If you were to port the same service to an iPhone, or iPad, would you apply back in the top left corner, a place that’s consistent across all iPhone/iPad interfaces?

Considering what’s appropriate, based on the device

We need to recognise that some devices are better at doing certain things, and worse at doing others.  And as a result, not all features are appropriate from one device to another.

For example, text entry to a TV UI using a standard RCU without a keyboard is a pain in the neck – whether it be through triple tap, or a navigable on-screen keyboard. Text entry via a tablet device is much easier.

Another example I’d like to pull up is putting a virtual remote on tablet devices. When people did this on mobile devices, it was novel, and it seemed to make some sense. The form factor of a mobile phone is quite similar to a standard RCU – you can hold it with one hand, it’s around the same size. Lately we’ve seen many companies putting the same interface onto tablet devices, and calling this innovative – with many people saying that it “spells the end of the traditional remote”.   Is porting a remote without considering the form factor of a tablet really “innovative”? Have they really considered whether it’s appropriate for the device they’ve placed it on? Have you tried to navigate holding an iPad in one hand, and trying to touch small hit areas with the other?

It’s a balancing act

It’s a balance. We want to make sure the learning curve is a small as possible, and as familiar as possible – hence we strive for consistency. We need to make decisions about how we can build familiarity into the design.  It’s our role as UX designers, to critically analyse what makes sense, where it makes sense, and when it makes sense.

There’s no blanket rule about what we need to be consistent with. And simply porting a UI from one device to another without considering how it will translate, is not the solution.