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Designing Interactive TV with Users in Mind

The User-led Interactive Television Services (UITS) project addresses several barriers to audience use of new media through a number of empirical studies and distribution of study results within a knowledge transfer network. The network brings together specialists from industry, technological research, empirical user research, and the users themselves.

UITS is part of the Media and Moving Image component of Westfocus, a UK government-funded consortium of universities west of London. The universities work together to promote knowledge transfer between academia and industry. The UITS work has involved a series of structured interviews with users to determine their responses to, and their aspirations for, interactive TV as the basis for the development of new services.

PDA display
Figure 1. Electronic Programme Guide on the PDA

Conducting the First Study

In November and December 2005, the first empirical study was focused around subscription-based digital TV service providers, and was aimed at gaining a general understanding of users’ perception of interactive TV. During in-depth interviews with twenty households, participants were asked to demonstrate how they actually use TV remote controls, electronic program guide (EPG) services, interactive content accessed via the ‘red button’ (games, shopping, information, etc.), and the Internet. All of their interactions were filmed.

Participants were asked, “What does interactivity mean to you?” The respondents’ replies varied and there was no common understanding of the term “interactivity.”

  • According to Mark, “It’s information, isn’t it?”
  • For Mark’s wife Donna, interactivity is about going further: “ If you are interested in something, and you can go further to find out more information.”
  • For Anne, interactivity means more choice: “ I think it’s good, lots of opportunities. If you are disabled, you are stuck in a house, you can get all this stuff, and also for children, they can get information at home.”

The study also revealed that interactivity is perceived as a positive concept only when it handles the risks and security issues mentioned by several respondents.

  • Annabel said, “Interactivity can be a good thing, but only if it is safe.”
  • Robert: “ I don’t think I’ll use it for playing games or gambling.”

Hidden costs in using interactive functions also made study participants wary. They worried about incurring costs without realizing it and about being charged for services they thought were free.

The team observed that most respondents, rather than trying out a wide range functions, used only a few functions available from their iTV services, focusing on familiar features suitable for their needs. They found the EPG most useful for navigation through the multi-channel environment. (bullet)

  • John: “You just look at what you’ve got now, and find what is on now.”

Design issues for iTV functions and services were implicit in participants’ attitudes toward and experiences of interactive media. Participants demonstrated that they most wanted the functions that offer the quickest route to content, not taking them away from the main viewing experience.

First Study Follow-up

This initial study led to parallel development of new services and an operating system with the EPG as the core interface. One design moved all onscreen graphics from the main screen to multiple personal digital assistants (PDAs). The other more conventionally used the TV and normal remote control.

The PDA approach avoids many latency problems in iTV systems since viewers don’t miss broadcast information (such as a goal in a football match) while the interactive service responds. Slow UI responses are especially frustrating when exiting from iTV services back to the normal picture.

Using the PDA also extends the model of iTV operation by offering a far richer interaction mechanism than conventional remote controls. More than one PDA can access iTV services at the same time. A number of users can be browsing the EPG, using a music video clip service, voting, and setting programs to be recorded — all at the same time .

Both systems work interactively, allowing channel switching, accurate EPG operation, and service with live iTV broadcasts (Freeview in the UK). Using a digital TV-enabled laptop in place of a conventional set-top box presented a realistic and immersive environment for the next phase of the study.

Second Study

In May 2006, the original fifty-five respondents participated in a series of semi-structured sessions using simulations of two sets of iTV service systems in their homes, with an EPG and a music video clip voting application. They interacted with the same services using two prototype devices: a traditional remote control and a twin PDA setup.

Detailed analysis of this user testing is still in process at the time of this writing, but initial results indicate that user reaction to the presentation of the EPG in a PDA is very positive. The majority of the respondents acknowledged the usefulness of employing such a handheld device to present and interact with the EPG, leaving the main TV picture free of any graphics.

Teenagers and women were the most enthusiastic users of the PDA system, finding it more user-friendly and straightforward than the conventional TV system. Women, especially, found the PDA mode of interaction less threatening and said they were very keen to adopt it. Teenagers and children, who are generally positive about new technology, wanted it as a novelty. Men on the other hand, seemed to be sceptical about the introduction of a new handheld device into their living room, as well as its pricing.

  • Jane’s son (14-years old): “Oh, this is great…I’ll probably get one of these for Christmas?”
  • Peter: “I think it’s expensive for people to buy that.”
  • Andy: “If I can set a program to record with Sky Plus, why get one of these?”

Views expressed about music video voting were different. Although participants admitted that the PDA system is easy to use, many paid more attention to the voting service graphics on the PDA and ignored the actual video clips on the TV screen. Most adult users, but not the teenagers, said they preferred using the conventional remote control to interact with iTV services such as voting applications.

In contrast to the PDA system, conventional TV tends to be more socializing, especially when services encourage peer/family interaction and discussion. Family members can express their opinions about a video clip or another voting item before casting their vote. In the PDA system, however, individuals tend to isolate themselves from debate and collective decision-making.

The congruence of iTV and sociability is an interesting phenomenon in its own right, and further research may determine whether user attitudes change when different types of iTV services, such as information services, are introduced.

photo of users sitting on a couch using a PDA
Figure 2. Testing the PDA prototype system of participant households

Service Creation Tools

Current iTV design tends to be led by technology rather than by user-centered design. The development of interactive TV services demands the involvement of a variety of specialists, and the highly complicated technical and programming-centered nature of iTV service creation does not allow much room for the involvement of graphic design or user interface and media specialists in all the stages of the iTV service production. The result is often a significant disparity between simulations and final broadcast services.

Brunel University has made an effort to make the technology more transparent to the digital media and design community by producing a suite of tools that semi-automate the process of creating iTV services, and by enabling experts to design user interfaces employing popular commercial graphical authoring packages, such as Adobe Director. The solution is based on production of the UI independently from the actual application functionality behind the UI.

In the first stage of the solution, the designer creates graphical components of the UI using a commercial graphical design tool, such as Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, or any similar tool (see Figure 3). The graphical components are exported as bitmap graphics.

In the second stage, the graphics are imported into the Adobe Director authoring package to create and simulate the user interface layout, content (text, internet pages, and audio/video snippets). Then Brunel’s user interface generation tool parses the Director file and outputs an XML description of the UI design.

In the final stage, Brunel’s application generation tool lists a number of functional components, such as playing a video clip or launching a web browser. The component library was written by software engineers and imported into the tool. The UI designer can now select the profile for the specified type of terminal, the platform and middleware, and then drag and drop the relevant functionality to a specified UI graphic.

When the process is finished, the tool exports a modified XML description of the user interface to the application that creates the iTV service. The tool is also able to transform the XML into an HTML format to display the UI via Internet browsers.

flowchary of front end and back end design process
Figure 3. Proposed solution for semi-automated iTV Service Application.


Digital TV is already in people’s homes. In the UK, it will soon be in all homes. Ubiquity, however, does not ensure high penetration rates and user satisfaction. People involved in the creation of iTV services need to adopt a more user-centered design approach, and iTV specialists from different fields need to come together to discuss and collaborate more on digital TV issues. Digital TV shareholders need to think about the barriers to using digital media, and come up with solutions that make the technology more transparent to non-technical users.

The UITS project can contribute to the collaboration by conducting empirical studies and organizing events that promote both user-centered design and a technological strategy for effective production of broadcast services.