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What Shall We Watch Tonight? Using Mobile Devices to Plan TV Viewing

Interactive Television (iTV) offers an exciting future full of dynamic viewer-channel interactions. However, while increasing numbers of consumers purchase iTV capable devices ,and channel providers experiment with services, a range of usability challenges remain.

One problem that warrants investigation is that of planning what to watch on television. With an increasing number of available channels, each offering many different programs, it is clear that many people may develop a major headache navigating through the maze of possibilities to find a program they want to watch.

Electronic program guides (EPGs) developed to help television viewers deal with this increasing number of channels are now regularly used by many people. Program guides display the television schedules on the television screen and allow viewers to choose what to watch directly from the on-screen list.

Although they are certainly popular, program guides on their own are not necessarily best suited to the task of television planning. Unlike printed television guides, they can only be used while in front of the television set—the user cannot use them while on the way to work or waiting for a train to arrive. Furthermore, the viewer must be focused on using the system and be actively engaged in setting viewing preferences and browsing the on-screen listings. This does not come naturally to most television viewers because viewers like to “lean back” and passively watch television, rather than “sit forward” to interact with their television set.

Our research efforts have been focused on how handheld technology—mobile phones, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), and the like—present an opportunity to augment traditional program guides and to better support television planning. Because it empowers viewers to plan their television viewing anywhere and at any time, it means that their natural style of interaction is better supported.

a list of tv shows and what channels they play on
Figure 1. An Electronic Program Guide (EPG)

Electronic Program Guides

A wide range of research has been conducted to look at how best to design program guides. These include studies evaluating the usability of program guides and studies looking at how peoples’ television viewing and planning habits might influence and inform the design of future program guides. Such studies often result in design guidelines and recommendations. However, existing guidelines are primarily directed toward on-screen guides, accessed directly via the television set. No such guidelines exist for a program guide running on a handheld device, or for a system integrating an on-screen program guide with a handheld device.

Some program guides have made the transition to handheld devices, but all are very much technology driven. The push appears to have come from the technology behind the personalization and artificial intelligence features, and not necessarily from any identifiable user needs for such a system. Furthermore, existing handheld systems seem lacking in any real integration with their homebound TV counterparts. They provide recommendations but do not allow users to directly act upon them, for example, by requesting recommendations to be recorded. The only notable exception to this is PTVPlus-GuideRemote. This system not only enables a user to directly control the television, but also provides personalized television listing information and program recommendations. However, being based around a universal remote control and not a PDA or mobile phone, the system clearly has limited scope for use away from the television set.

Multiple Device User Interfaces

Multiple device user interface systems for digital television tend to be oriented toward either delivering what has been termed “extended television”—that is, giving people further opportunities to view or participate in a program away from their TV set—or toward directly controlling the television channels and functions using a handheld device. However, not much work has been directed toward television planning.

Extended television can be seen as an attempt to extend digital television beyond the television set itself, allowing the extension of television brands to a range of different electronic devices. So, viewers can feel connected to a television program through a mobile phone or the Web even when it is not on air and there is no television within reach. Such services can involve synchronous interaction, where the interaction occurs while the television is turned on, or asynchronous interaction, where the interaction occurs either before or after the program has been broadcast.

Paces of Interaction

As users’ context changes, so might the desired level of interaction with the technological resources available to them. We might then differentiate between the “lean-back” interaction seen in conventional TV viewing, and the “sit-forward,” highly engaged form seen with computer use.

Studies all agree that television traditionally supports a very passive style of interaction, but that the level of interaction increases with the introduction of increasingly interactive services, such as program guides. There is a clear conflict between the traditional style of television interaction and the more interactive television services. It is therefore not surprising that studies have shown that not all viewers are eager to switch to a more involved level of interaction, preferring the old and the reliable to the new and suspect. Researchers have sought to reduce this level of interaction by pushing more personalized content through program guides. However, to date, little work has investigated the possibility of moving it away from the television and onto a different platform, such as a PDA or mobile phone.

Television Planning Diary Study

We asked eight people in the United Kingdom, between ages 18-35, to keep a week-long diary of their TV planning activities. We asked them to note the resources they used, when they were used, and for what purposes. We then used these entries as a basis for a mid-study phone interview and an end-of-study face-to-face discussion.

chart of tv planning and scheduling
Figure 2. Example of a diary entry.

 Planning Can be a Social Activity

All diarists indicated that they often watch television with other people. This seems to have a real impact on how they plan what to watch because consideration must be given as to what others want to watch.

Although most diary entries were of individuals using television planning aids, a number referred to collectively planning when seeking an agreement about what to watch together. Changing channels or on-screen television planning aids are used to enable everyone to see what programs are available. Perhaps the ingrained social nature of watching television makes on-screen television planning aids more suitable for collective planning. Watching television is frequently a social activity, so it seems natural that using a television to plan television viewing also would be a social activity.

Television can also provide a social commonality. For example, diarists spoke of chatting to friends about programs that they watched. There was also evidence of diarists recommending programs and movies to friends. One diarist spoke of a friend with whom he regularly sent and received text messages with television program recommendations. Another saw a program that she felt a friend might be interested in and phoned to let them know that it would be on. There appears to be evidence of people not just looking for themselves, but also looking for television programs that might interest others.

Viewers Look for More of What they Like

The type of program and whether the diarist had seen it before and liked it were the most important factors when deciding what to watch. The channel broadcasting the program was seen as being important because it is recognized that some channels—such as MTV—only show programs of a certain type (music in this case). Furthermore, there is a clear issue of trust. It is recognized that some channels, primarily the terrestrial ones in the UK, can be relied upon to show programs worth watching. That is, the quality of the content is seen as being higher than what some of the other television channels offer.

Often diarists would talk about watching a program because there was a lot of discussion about it both in the media and in their communities. Furthermore, they watched programs because they were recommended by others. Such recommendations might come from friends, family, or from editorials and television critics. Recommendations are especially influential for films and one-off television programs, where there is little prior knowledge of the program.

Planning is Often Short Term

Predominately, people used the guides to map out the coming evening’s viewing or while sitting in front of the TV to consider what was available. Longer-term planning was focused on programs users particularly wanted to watch or record (such as a film or documentary).

The Design Concept

We developed a low-fidelity mobile prototype to support viewing planning in three ways:

  • By providing a recommendation facility where one user can send suggestions to another’s mobile, and where “recommender services” (such as broadcasters) can also send alerts. Suggestions are sent in a text message mode that alerts the recipient as soon as one is sent.
  • By focusing the mobile guide on personal highlights for the user by default listing only the upcoming day’s highlights. Users can create lists of their favorite programs and program types.
  • By reminding them of a program they indicated they wanted to watch or record.
PDA with a tv schedule on it
Figure 3. The paper-and-PDA mock-up used in evaluation.


We developed and facilitated a proof-of-concept study with twelve users (five female, seven male, aged 18-35). Each participant worked with the prototype, which consisted of mock-up dialogue screens attached to a hand-held computer manipulated by the investigator in a naïve Wizard-of-Oz form. That is, the prototype had no built-in interactivity, but was animated by the investigator choosing what to display next. We asked users to work through a series of tasks that demonstrated the extended program guide facilities. At the end of their session, we asked them to rate the features and provide additional feedback during an interview.

We found that the participants saw the personalized TV highlights as the most useful feature. The reminder function was second in popularity. In terms of the recommendation features, users expressed a strong preference for family/friend recommendations over third-party ones. Even so, many participants reported that they would prefer to phone or text someone, rather than explicitly recommend a television program. There were also concerns about being alerted each time a new recommendation arrives. Participants saw a less intrusive system, allowing recommendations to be dealt with when it is convenient to do so, not necessarily when they arrive, as preferable. That is, a system much more like email than texting. Television programs that viewers are currently watching provide the only instance where recommendation alerts are desirable. However, most participants still reported that they would rather call because there is no guarantee that their friend or family member is watching television at that moment.

photo of a woman holding a PDA
Figure 4. A participant using the prototype during an evaluation.


We have presented some initial arguments and evidence that suggest conventional electronic program guides need augmenting. Program guides do not support planning away from the television set, and do not support the engaged, social style of interaction required in some TV planning scenarios. Migrating some of these activities to a handheld device appears to be a promising approach that merits further investigation.

While the social element of the system—the personal recommendations—was viewed favorably, our study suggests that there is much further work needed to understand how to integrate existing collaborative viewing practices (such as word-of-mouth promotion) within emerging iTV technologies.