Adam Michela
Sep 11, 2015 · 4 min read

Along with Michael Bachand, I have been designing and building Airbnb for Apple TV from the ground up. What follows are some lessons learned along the way.


An Interface to Be Shared

Creating experiences for the most communal device Apple has ever designed.


Imagine a family using your interface together on a modest screen from ten feet away. Or colleagues collaborating through your interface across multiple screens in an expansive boardroom.

You’re probably twitching because you’re more accustomed to imagining your application being used by one person at a time, on a small and perfectly calibrated screen, only inches from their face.

Designing for Apple TV requires you to think different. You must consider the perceptions of the person operating the remote as well as those around them.


Showing everyone what’s in focus.

It should be immediately apparent that Apple’s standard system materials and their dramatic focus effects stand in service to this principle. Focused elements scale to become larger, receive a deep drop shadow, become higher contrast, and may receive an outline or background color.

What might be less apparent at first glance or lost in your mockups, prototypes, and presentations is the meaningful role motion effects also play in communicating focus.

After some time using the new Apple TV remote, you’ll realize that you constantly leave your thumb resting on the Touch surface. What’s more, even the slightest movements of your thumb are picked up by this high-resolution sensor and translated to exaggerated motion effects on the currently focused item. This creates a lively dialogue between your users and your interface.

As long as the remote is in someone’s hand, there will always be something moving on-screen.


Showing everyone where they can go.

Apple’s motion effects do more than just tell you where you are — they also subtly communicate where you can move next.

For example, consider a standard table view on tvOS. As you move your finger on the Touch surface, it’s not a coincidence that the currently focused item will only translate along the vertical axis. This motion effect hints that other focusable elements are above and below where you are.
Choosing an appropriate layout for your content also goes a long way in making your interface intuitive to navigate. Although users can move focus in any direction, elements are much easier to navigate to when they are aligned along vertical and horizontal axes. That doesn’t mean all on-screen elements need to be laid out to one overarching grid, but it does make sense for sections of similar elements to be aligned to a grid of their own.

These subtle design decisions are important for whomever is operating the remote and are critical for those around them.


Helping everyone communicate.

Once everyone knows what can become focused, it greatly improves the experience if they can also provide an operator with clear verbal requests for where they would like to go in the app. When sharing a screen from afar, pointing has little effect.

“Go right” or “go up” are much easier to understand than “go to the thing that’s one-third of the way down the screen and on the right.”

Labels can play a critical role here as well. “Go to the photo of the bedroom with the pink blanket” isn’t a particularly easy to follow request. This is one of the reasons why with Airbnb for Apple TV we display one listing on-screen at any time.


Letting everyone participate.

A communal device challenges the single-user model of authentication we’ve grown accustomed to on web and mobile. What privacy model will make sense when there are multiple current users? How will you personalize recommendations when activity may be attributed to multiple people? How will someone pass content to their personal devices if they’re not the person who is currently signed-in?

The first set of third-party Apple TV apps (e.g. Netflix) address this problem by creating sub-identities within a single account. With Airbnb, we’ve initially chosen to allow multiple accounts to be signed-in to our application at once, and isolate activity that occurs on the TV from activity that occurs in private.

In future versions of Apple TV we may gain some interesting tools to help us improve these experiences, such as Handoff and Touch ID. But thinking different might simply be the greatest tool we have at our disposal for creating the best experience possible.


We’ve long been leveraging technology to connect people. A communal device is a fascinating opportunity to use technology to enhance the experience of those who are already connected.

The new Apple TV is hands down the most communal device that Apple has ever designed. The full potential of this new platform will be unlocked when we design our apps to be shared.

Thanks to Michael Bachand

Adam Michela

A technology designer, developer, entrepreneur and investor in San Francisco.

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