A social interface
for online TV.

A thesis process.


Picking my Thesis topic - television
I knew I wanted the topic of my thesis to revolve around television. I got a great advice from John Sharp: "Make your thesis topic something that you are interested in, enough that you can keep talking about it for a whole year, but something you are not too in love with or that is too personal that you won't be able to accept criticism on".
I can talk about TV forever; I suppose - and hope - that I can take constructive criticism.

Archie Bunker, 1970s show

Why TV?
TV was considered the centerpiece of the western civilization living room, the tribal fire around which the family used to gather and consume contents. Being the common mass media communication device that it was, TV had profound influence on our day to day lives. In recent years, this perception of television is beginning to change due to multiple other sources of entertainment, so that TV is no longer the major entertainment provider. Still, television used to be the main provider of culture and education during a great part of my life, a role I’m sure is true for many others. This is why I have chosen to deal with its current manifestations as my thesis.

What is TV?
TV is both a device and the content which was created for it. In the beginning, these two components were one and the same. Nowadays it is easy to consume TV content without having the certain TV device itself. This fact makes it hard to address the topic of "television": I’ve talked to many subjects who discarded my attempt to ask about their TV habits by simply stating, “I don’t even have a TV”. After further investigation I discovered that most of them just consume TV content online through various services and content providers.
The English language has yet to catch up with the changes that are blazing through the digital entertainment world. We can no longer use the same archaic words like “television” and “channels” simply because these are no longer relevant. So I have decided to make the distinction between “Broadcast TV” and “Online TV”. Broadcast TV means watching mainly live TV in the traditional sense i.e. on the television device, using a cable or satellite service. Other phrases for this type of viewing include “traditional TV” and “cable TV”. Online TV is any type of content, including movies and television shows, which is viewed online through streaming and can be viewed on any device. Other phrases for online TV include ‘’digital streaming”, “video streaming”, “digital media”, “over-the-top services” and “web TV”. Suffice to say, the media has yet to decide on the new terms for the new age of TV. I will stick to “broadcast” vs. “online”.

What type of thesis will this be?
My main passion is designing useful, functional products. This is probably affected by my background in industrial design. I get annoyed by products that are not easy to interact with, both physical and digital. I love taking on the challenge of designing an intuitive, easily adopted experience. I feel that our interaction with online TV content is lacking and presents many opportunities for new and better design.
In this thesis project I would like to focus on and enhance my User Experience design capabilities. That means that my main interest is to design the interaction with the product and not necessarily to build it or achieve a fully working product.
I would like to get my product to the level of a commercial concept pitch: a prototype that can communicate what the product is, what it will feel like to use it, what are its features, and what can be done with it. This will most likely be done by creating a web prototype, fed by static information and a high resolution user flow video. I will accompany these simulations and prototypes with a technical proof that such a product can be developed in the near future.

Understanding our interaction with TV: how has it changed?

38% of Americans use Netflix, according to Nielsen's Q2 2013 Cross-Platform Report, September 2013

Introducing the new “tech”: online streaming
The realm of television has been drastically changing over the last few years. Many services are now offering a new way to consume TV content online via streaming and downloading.
In 2007 Netflix started giving instant online access to streaming content, effectively changing the rules of the game (See more about Netflix in the case study addendum). After Netflix, many other companies followed suit, with TV networks and other content providers finally joining as well. Currently, Netflix is still the leading provider of online TV content, both movies and TV shows, but it is now accompanied by contenders like Hulu, Amazon Prime, Vudu, iTunes, HBOgo, ShowTime, Redbox and more.
While these services are still mostly supplementing the traditional cable/satellite TV consumption, they are very widespread and leading to an inevitable paradigm shift in the way of watching television.

The shift is greater than we know
These streaming services that have slowly been “stealing” viewers from broadcast television, have been named by Nielsen “over-the-top” services as they were initially perceived as supplements for the traditional television experience. This is the same Nielsen Company whose rating statistics are no longer accurate because so much of the viewing has migrated to devices and platforms that have not yet been monitored. Just as an example, “Breaking Bad”, undoubtedly one of the more popular shows as of late, stood at a very low market share of less than 3 million viewers per episode. And yet, the finale attracted more than ten million viewers. The only explanation is that these additional 7 million viewers, and probably millions more, have been watching all along. They just haven't been watching via traditional broadcast TV, which is the only device that Nielsen can currently account for. Starting fall 2014, Nielsen will be taking into account the ratings on mobile devices, but only in applications that stream with the same ads as they would on broadcast television, like the ABC streaming app. The streaming companies themselves are reluctant to share any type of individual show statistics, so there is no way to get stats for the unofficial consumption of content through the internet. The eventual outcome is the skewed ratings. These which will remain skewed as long as networks request ratings for the sole reason of selling ad spots. Even if there are ads online, it is still not considered a big enough market share for them to actually assess.

Google’s “ChromeCast”

Introducing the new “tech”: hardware
“Set-top box” refers to any type of digital entertainment providing box that is connected to the television. The recently released ones rely on internet connection to supply the viewers with digital pre recorded content. All set-top boxes available so far offer a basic interface that includes multiple dynamic applications, similarly to a smartphone. These apps can be downloaded, updated and interacted with one at a time.
The biggest names in digital boxes are currently Roku and AppleTV.
There are also hybrid devices that supply the same access to applications among them smart TVs, some Blu-Ray devices and combined cable and internet boxes.
Another whole section that provides access to digital media on TV is gaming consoles. All modern gaming consoles come with the option to stream media through individual applications. Some consoles are now trying to expand their definition of use to encompassing entertainment boxes, giving the users both gaming and viewing access.
Xbox One has taken this approach a step further, connecting directly into the cable box and essentially taking over the viewer’s TV. The new release allows access to live cable channels and even DVR content by using the Xbox interface and the Kinect voice commands.
A relatively new development in the hardware department is Google’s “ChromeCast”. This is a small and cheap ($35) HDMI device that connects to any smart TV. After a quick and simple setup, it allows viewers to cast content from any Chrome browser and from most smartphones and tablets straight to the big screen, exactly like AirPlay does for Apple devices. While the product is still in its early stages, it supplies a smart and simple solution to consuming internet based content on the big screen, using your own wireless connection and at a minimal cost.

The differences between watching broadcast TV and online TV

Consuming traditional TV is located on opposite side of the TV viewing experience spectrum to that of online TV consumption. On the one side of this spectrum there is traditional TV - a device hooked up to an external content provider, a cable network or satellite service. These provide live channels with constant independent streams that are not controlled by the viewer. Some additions to these services allow the users to digitally pre-record contents and to watch contents on demand, paid or free of charge. Traditional TV treats the viewers as a captive audience, giving them minimal control over content and timing.
On the other side, online TV allows the viewers full control over their choice of what (contents) and when (the appointed time of watching). While traditional TV provides the viewer with a seemingly effortless experience - just flip through the channels and find something - online TV requires the viewers to be active in their consumption, picking what they want to watch next, actually finding a source and activating the player. In some cases it also requires more technical knowledge of both hardware and software.
Most traditional TV watching is accompanied by ads, especially in the US market where there is an average of 15 minutes of ads per hour. Online viewers can mostly avoid ads.
There is also a significant difference in cost since most online paid content providers charge only around $10 a month, while viewers can also access great quantities of content online for free.

An overview of the streaming services available today
As mentioned before, Netflix is the market's current giant content provider. It is a paid service that allows its 40 million customers access to over 10,000 titles online.
Another content provider is Hulu, which has a free tier as well as a paid tier, Hulu Plus. Hulu’s main focus is television shows, and it primarily provides contents which are also available elsewhere, through individual network sites. Hulu essentially acts as a hub for the available content, making money off the commercials they add on both the paid and free tiers.
Amazon has gotten into the streaming game by introducing Amazon Instant Video as well as a movie rental service for streaming and downloading. The basic service is included for all prime subscribers, but allows only low quality content for free, while anything else has a price.
Other big content providers are: Crackle, Vudu, and Redbox Instant.

HBOgo, HBO's streaming service

Many networks which create content and air it on broadcast television, also provide their content online. The top network that act this way is HBO, releasing in 2010 HBOgo: a cross platform streaming application that provides all of HBO’s content to its paid subscribers. The same year, Showtime launched its online service Showtime Anytime, providing a similar experience for its paying customers.

Other networks (CW, CBS, NBC, A&E, PBS and more) supply online content for free, making it easy for everyone to enjoy their shows. Some, like HBO and Showtime, grant access to content only to those who pay for said network through their cable plan: USA, TNT,ABC, TBS and others.

Official resources vs. alternatives
Up until now I have mentioned only the official means of consuming television contents online. It is important to recognize that there are endless resources of unofficial online contents; these are both streaming and downloading sources. While I understand that these services could make my product content limitless, I prefer to keep my resources solely official. I feel that it is important to support the current legal content providers and bring to light all networks that allow for free viewing online. I hope that the greater consumption of content through network sites will boost networks’ eagerness to provide more online content for free.

The social aspect
Before Netflix and DVR and AppleTV, all we had was television sets. Back in those days everyone watched the same shows at the same time; there was only little choice in that matter. The rocket scientists among us, who were able to program their VCRs, got to enjoy the privilege of watching at different times. However for the most part then, when you were watching something you assumed your friends were too. The day after, viewers used to discuss the shows that aired the night before. This led to a communal feeling, because the contents that occupied people's free time were pretty much the same for everyone.
The emergence of new technology meant watching live television was not imperative anymore, so everyone started watching content at different times. Presently, the interaction over shows and the discussion of what happened the night before is not as intuitive as it used to be: you no longer assume that your friends have watched the same shows you have.

Prior projects that dealt with social TV watching
These are two projects that I've worked on in the past year. Both deal with the subject of social TV watching from different aspects.
Cinemate was done in collaboration with Lola Ye, Jean Zhao and Norma Chan. It is a social streaming cross platform application, allowing friends to watch TV shows and movies together, incorporating video and text chat. The application uses all available screens to create a wholesome experience. A big screen TV can be hooked up to the laptop and will show the program, while the laptop will be used to show the other viewers via video. The mobile phone can be used as a remote, and to text the other viewers during the show. More information

WatchThis (v1.0) is a social watchlist and media hub, cross platform application. It let's you see what your friends are watching and what episode they are on. WatchThis v1.0 encourages you to interact on and off the screen over content you love. More information

A few examples of current TV watching scenarios
As these new technologies are constantly being added on top of each other, we are currently facing a very strange, very individualistic way of watching TV. We each have our own different devices and use different services in order to consume entertainment, so that each interaction looks and feels different. Following are a few examples.
First account:
I am browsing Facebook on my iPhone. I am reminded by a post that a new episode of True Blood has aired yesterday. I open HBOgo in FireFox on my PC laptop. I log in with my cousin’s account. I connect my PC to my monitor, take the wireless mouse with me and go watch on the couch.
Second account:
It is Saturday morning. I open the iTV Shows app on my SmartPhone to check out what was the last episode of Breaking Bad that I watched. I have 3 episodes to watch. I google “watch breaking bad online” in Chrome on my Macbook. I open a couple of links in different tabs, test them out and let all the episodes load. I binge watch in bed on my laptop. I pause in order to go on Facebook to share my amazement of this episode’s events.
Third account:
We are looking for something to watch, maybe a movie. I go on my IMDb watchlist on my phone while my partner looks on Netflix on his computer. We finally find a movie we both want to watch that is also available on Netflix. We turn on the TV, and the Xbox. We go into the Netflix app and log into my partner’s mom’s account. We find the movie we agreed on, lean back on the couch with the Xbox controller and watch.
Forth account:
Me and my roommates are hanging around the living room together, each looking at her own mobile device. I find a funny clip on youtube from BatDad and start laughing. As my roomates are intrigued, I turn on the TV and press the ChromeCast button on YouTube, sending the content to the big screen for everyone to enjoy. We carry on and binge watch random videos for an hour.

The pain points of watching online TV
Each viewer's interaction with online TV content is different because of the abundance of services and devices. This creates a situation in which there is no one mainstreamed way to consume content. There are more popular methods like Netflix and AppleTV and more obscure ones like individual unofficial streaming websites. The services require different levels of effort from the viewer: registering, paying, filling out profiles, and so on. At any case, the viewers have to go and search for the content they want to find, and in many cases this means searching through multiple sources. A viewer might look through the resources in Netflixs, as well as on Vudu and YouTube.
Often viewers do not know what the resources and options are. Most of the subjects of my interviews were surprised to find out that many networks provide recent episodes of their shows online for free.
Consuming media online also requires a certain level of technical proficiency. Some users opt out of online television simply because it seems daunting to them to search for content online. The viewing process sometimes entails additional hardware hookups and purchases, like connecting a computer to a television, or using set-top devices. This too presents a pain point.
Another main disadvantage of online TV that discourages viewers is the lack of live events. During my primary research, a subject that kept repeating was the use of broadcast television for the consumption of live events like sports and news. As this subject has yet to be resolved fully in online resources, some progress has nevertheless been made. Many events are now broadcasted live online, parallel to TV, and many news networks offer free live streaming under special circumstances.

The main issue: Fragmented experience
The situation nowadays presents many devices that allow viewers to consume TV content by accessing endless content providers, both paid and free, official and unofficial. The sources of contents are nomore important to the viewers. The origin of a content is not relevant to the viewer, but only to the companies and networks that produced it. What viewers wish is to consume the stories presented to them in their own time and according to their own comfort.
This abundance of options leads to a fragmented, ineffective and frustrating viewing experience. Content and information are spread out over multiple devices and sources, forcing the viewers to parse through said sources, going back and forth through different devices.

Fat Future Lisa Simpson
“Lisa the Simpson”, Season 9, episode 17, 1998

Why does it matter?
I believe that this lack of one clear easy way to watch content online deters viewers from consuming online TV. I would argue that more control over content and ads time provide a better watching experience. I feel that traditional TV watching makes viewers accustomed to being unselective in what they watch, flipping through the channels and passively watching whatever is on. Online TV drives the viewers to be selective in what they watch and forces them to have a more proactive approach in picking their content. I personally feel that this approach leads to a higher level of content quality, since there is less chance of “stumbling on” content and passive “trash” watching. As for my personal experience, online television has changed my habits to the point where everything I now watch is “on purpose” and under my full control.
However, I feel that most viewers prefer to have less control over content when more control means for them a higher level of effort. This effectively discourages viewers from switching over to a fully controlled TV experience through online television.
Online TV also presents a cheaper alternative to cable television, providing an abundance of free content and charging only around $10 a month for sizable services like Hulu Plus and Netflix.

Google Trends, February 2014

An interesting phenomenon came to my attention as I was conducting research about watching habits in the United States: America is not fond of searching online for streaming content. US was not even in the top seven countries to appear in Google Trends’ search for the terms “watch online”, “stream for free” etc. Based on this, I suspect that most Americans prefer to consume their content online through services, making it a painless experience. I feel that it would be beneficial to the US audience to have a service that will make is easy for them to discover content online, be it free or through paid content providers. This service would be offered via a product that will reveal the endless possibilities of online TV.

Kevin Spacey, AKA "Frank Underwood"

Why is Netflix so important?

Netflix has been consistently flexible and adaptable and hence successful. Netflix was formed by Reed Hastings after having to pay a $40 fine for not returning a DVD on time. Hence he decided things needed to change.
Starting in 1997 as a mailing service for DVDs, Netflix is today a media empire with the biggest supply of online streaming content online. The company has managed to stay in the game by both playing it safe and taking a risk. It still provides the US with the DVD rental services needed while constantly innovating in the online section of its services. Recent big success was Netflix’s original shows which were released to the public as full seasons. The media giant created House of Cards and Orange is the New Black and also brought back Arrested Development from its untimely demise. These were a major success because Netflix listened to its viewers clients?. On August this year, Kevin Spacey gave the The James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival. In the lecture he explained the importance of Netflix’s attitude towards the new age of television:
"Clearly the success of the Netflix model, releasing the entire season of House of Cards at once, proved one thing: The audience wants the control. They want the freedom. If they want to binge as they’ve been doing on House of Cards and lots of other shows, we should let them binge. I can’t tell you how many people have stopped me on the street and said, ‘Thank you, you sucked three days out of my life.”...
"And through this new form of distribution, we have demonstrated that we have learned the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn: Give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it. Well, some will still steal it, but I think we can take a bite out of piracy.”
It seems that Netflix is highly attentive to its viewers and gives them what they want, which in this era means immediate access to content easily, from anywhere. There is no doubt that there is still much to learn from America’s largest and most successful online streaming provider.

© All rights reserved, Or Leviteh 2014.