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The design of television and human values

Unlimited choice, personalised recommendations and binge watching are hallmarks of contemporary TV viewing. We watch what we want, when we want and we expect recommendations to match our tastes and preferences. Yet what’s happening psychologically when we search through unlimited content or end up in an all night binge session?

Happy woman watching TV and eats popcorn at night
Image by Je Shoots via Unsplash

For every design choice there is a corresponding human reaction, and getting it right is increasingly important as we move away from traditional TV viewing, to a world of dynamic content, available across all our devices.

The content choice explosion is generally perceived positively.

People are innately curious, hardwired to seek out novelty. But too much choice can cause stress, something psychologists call the choice paradox.

In fact, when faced with too much choice we may not be able to choose at all, or we may feel disappointed and regretful with our decision.

Personalisation is one method for narrowing our choices, and whilst being served content to match our tastes is appealing, it also leads to echo-chambers, where recommendations are derived from our historic or demographic data. As a 30 something woman who’s been served one too many rom-coms, I’d offer that this approach reinforces stereotypes and doesn’t give enough agency to audiences wanting a diverse viewing experience. Less problematic are design features which categorise content by popularity, such as Netflix’s run down of the top shows watched by UK audiences. Research shows that when choices can be filtered we choose more easily and experience less regret, but it’s crucial to evaluate the ethical and psychological implications for the different methods of achieving this to offer viewers a truly excellent experience.

Reaching excellence also relies on studying new forms of viewer behaviour, such as the rise in binge watching. Binging, is initially pleasurable and often happens unintentionally since it releases dopamine in the brain, which is addictive.

Dopamine is the same neurotransmitter which is released when we eat, learn, or have sex, so we are primarily driven to seek out dopamine releasing activities.

Yet binging can also lead to regret due to goal conflict. Our secondary drivers, like working, exercising or spending time with others may get over-ridden in the moment by the dopamine release we get from starting that next episode. The autoplay feature, seen on many streaming services, offers convenience and simultaneously facilitates this conflict with our goals, leading people to anticipate regret post binging. So there’s a trade off; we may feel good initially, but worse later on.

Watching TV with AutoPlay symbol from bed
Image by David Balev via Unsplash (Edited)

As we see with binging, viewer experience can have a lasting impact, which is why it’s important to put people at the heart of the design process and test new designs and their effects at different points in time. At i2 media we teach user experience and psychology to technologists and media professionals helping them to weigh up the costs and benefits of their design decisions. We champion human centred design, to create technology embedded in human values, for a better world.

Words by Leah Kurta, Innovation Lead at i2 media research




We apply psychological principles and research methods to understand technology, media and the consumer.

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i2media research

i2media research

We apply psychological principles and research methods to understand technology, media and the consumer.

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