Internet TV: UX a potential casualty in the battle for the living room?

The Internet-enabled TV has been around for a little while, but the fight for control of the living room has begun in earnest now that Google has joined the fray ( Instinctively Internet on TV makes sense, after all many people admit to using a laptop, netbook or iPad when watching TV, so why not bring that experience to the TV itself? However, I can’t help feeling that in the rush to get the web onto the widescreen nobody has properly stopped to think about whether it really matches with how anyone uses their TV or consumes information from the Internet. In the UX industry this is known as the “context of use”. If you fail to consider this properly, you end up with a product that isn’t fit for purpose.

So, how do we watch TV? Watching TV is often a social or group activity, you watch with your family, friends or housemates. Surfing the Internet is much more of a solitary activity as it’s hard to share a screen or co-browse. Those people who admit to using a laptop when watching TV are typically dual-tasking – perhaps working, checking email, playing a game or browsing the web whilst watching TV.

Which aspects of this context of use should be considered when designing Internet-enabled TV?

1. Control: When you bring the Internet to the TV, only one person can take control, what happens to everyone else in the room? There’s a risk they’re forced to sit there with that slightly seasick feeling you get when watching a computer screen being used when you’re not in control.

2. Passive vs interactive: Even if you’re watching TV on your own, what you’re doing is watching TV. It’s almost not an interaction. TV by its very nature is something you consume passively, you don’t really interact. There’s nothing wrong with changing this, but it’s a huge culture shift and it will take some time to achieve. Look at how long it took for computers to have any place in the living room, let alone become an integral part of it. Even if we take those people I mentioned earlier, that use their laptop while watching TV. Look at the interaction, they’re still watching TV while using their laptop. So will or should Internet TV mirror this behaviour? Do we want to watch our friends update their facebook profile while we sit and watch TV?

3. Position: Sitting and watching, it’s the fundamental behaviour for TV use. However, seating position doesn’t seem to have been seriously considered. People will often sit a long way from their TV, as TV shows don’t require you to read text in any meaningful quantity. What about the web? There is inevitably going to be a need to read text and navigate through content. To overcome this the app approach will doubtless be used. How will apps upscale to TV size? Can an iPad style interaction work?

4. Input & interaction. How people will actually interact with their Internet enabled TV? The consumer electronics industry has only sporadically mastered the art of a good remote control (top marks to Sky for theirs). It’s going to be very interesting to see what they believe is required to allow viewers to easily interact with their Internet TVs. Early indications suggest a keyboard approach (see the Logitech Revue), but again the chosen method really depends on how people want and need to interact with Internet enabled TV. The iPhone experience has shown that well designed UIs can get away with minimal keyboard input.

In summary, it’s early days for Internet TV and I believe its ultimate success rests on understanding how people want to incorporate the Internet into their TV experience, not in forcing a culture shift in how people watch TV. By carefully considering both how people watch TV and how they use the Internet, we should be able to design a service that reflects the context of use and matches what people need in that context. IPlayer and Lovefilm are good examples of services that work on TV, but they’re really an alternative to other on-demand TV services. One area to consider is in harnessing the times when there is a break in viewing, between shows or during adverts. Tailored news services or ad supported mini-games could find a significant market here. Imagine if you participated in adverts rather than watching them, could we see a day when you look forward to a commercial break?