Design beyond 10 foot

There’s more to designing for TV than your distance from the screen.

Ian Goode
Ian Goode
May 8, 2018 · 6 min read

TV is often referred to as a “10 foot user experience”. This is to distinguish it from desktop and mobile screens, which are generally much closer to your face.

It’s not a bad phrase to use, but it can skew our perception when it comes to designing TV interfaces. Your distance from the screen isn’t the only defining factor.

Today we have holograms and voice assistants and ’smart lighting’, so it’s high-time we revisited the idea of the ‘10 foot user experience’.

Let’s remind ourselves again what it means to design for TV.

TV has baggage

Many UI designers have the privilege of being near the cutting edge of technology. New advancements, like smartphones or AR, come with clean slates and new worlds of possibility. Designers can shape and react to new customer behaviours.

With TV, that’s not the case. TV has baggage, over 50 years of it. That’s a lifetime of conditioned behaviour and cultural expectations around what a TV is and does.

In a world where technology is changing at an ever increasing pace, TV has remained steadfast in its place like a wizened old king. It’s seen countless new gadgets come and go, surviving through it all unfazed.

This makes it difficult to innovate on how we interact with it. Many have tried, but it remains a thing that you sit and watch. That hasn’t changed much in over 50 years.

TV has an audience

Viewing habits changed with the emergence of small TVs, smartphones, and streaming. We started watching less together and started watching more alone. Is that born out of desire, convenience, or both?

The popularity of social streaming platforms like Twitch and live social events like HQ Trivia signal that we still enjoy the social aspect of watching together. At least some of the time!

Given the TV’s history and place in the home, it naturally lends itself to social viewing. So how do we cater for that when designing TV experiences?

We need to consider not just the viewer holding the remote, but the other people in the room who may be ‘backseat driving’. Maybe, unlike smartphone apps, we shouldn’t be thinking about the ‘user’, we should be thinking about the ‘audience’.

We explored how this concept impacts recommendations in a previous post here on The Fourth Wall.

This TV is small, this TV is far away

When TV first came on the scene it became the centrepiece of the modern home. Families would spend their evenings crowded around it, even to eat their dinner. TVs got bigger, the picture got better, and couch grooves got deeper.

Then an interesting thing happened — the LCD display arrived. TVs could now come in all shapes and sizes, so long as the shape was flat. TVs spread throughout the house, no longer confined to the living room.

As a teen I saw it all happen. I got a small TV in my bedroom. Then my parents got a small one for the kitchen. Then my sister got a small one for her bedroom. TV went from being the big centrepiece of the family home to being a personal device.

Then a more interesting thing happened. The smartphone arrived, with fast internet. We now watch on devices that aren’t very TV-like at all. The small personal TVs have disappeared and manufacturers have doubled down on going big.

Walk into any electronics store and the dominant theme is now size — the bigger the better. Now, more than ever, the TV has again become the centrepiece of the home.

The Rat’s Nest

Modern TVs are thing of beauty. Big, perfectly engineered slabs of glass at all costs. Some manufacturers are even experimenting with transparent TVs that disappear when powered off.

I say, hold the hell up. The backside of a TV is a horror show. As they get bigger, the amount of wires protruding from the back grows to match. The innovation happening around TV has come in the form of things we plug into it.

This makes designing TV and peripheral UI very difficult, since you have no idea what combinations are being used. You can also end up with multiple different versions of your service all available on one TV, thanks to the variety of devices on the market.

This is a UX dream, that is if the U stands for Utilitarian and the X stands for Xtravaganza. For the user it’s a confusing mess of trying to remember what device is in what port, what show is on what app, what app is on what device, and what remote you need to use. If you even need a remote that is…

Where’s the clicker?

There was a time when interacting with a TV required just a single remote. All most people needed to do was channel surf and adjust the volume, with the other buttons being esoteric features rarely used. But as The Rat’s Nest grew behind the TV, the collection of remotes grew in front of it.

Today every household has its own set of ways to interact with the TV. A remote for the TV, a remote for the cable box, gamepads for the Playstation, a remote for the sound system, a remote for the Apple TV… And let’s not forget voice assistants like Siri or smartphones that can Airplay and Cast. No doubt you’ve got your own combination from that list that’s different from mine.

With TV you don’t just design for the big screen, you design for the entire room.

On one side of the coin, this is a great situation. You can create a personal and unique viewing experience. Set it up exactly how you want it.

One the other side of the coin, this is an absolute mess. We spend all day on our smartphones in an ecosystem of apps that we can easily move between. Apps that can easily share content and communicate with each other. Then we come home to a room full of isolated devices, disjointed experiences and walled gardens.

As a highly tech literate designer, this is just a nuisance. But with less tech literate people I’ve seen first-hand, over and over, the confusion and frustration. Over time it results in a kind of fear. The purchase of a new TV or the addition of a new device to the home becomes a major event and an actual source of stress.

We can do better than this!

This post has covered just a handful of the considerations that go into designing a great TV experience. Here at Axonista we’re passionate about designing for TV, so if what you’ve just read has struck a chord please leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts. We’ll be writing a lot more about this on The Fourth Wall, so give us a follow and stay tuned(!)

The Fourth Wall

The design of interactive digital media

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