Greg Walsh


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The Joys of Channel Surfing, How Hulu Ruined it, and How it all Relates to Design

Friday February 10, 2012

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes

We dropped cable/satellite in Fall '09. It wasn't that we were anti-cable or anything, it was just that $108 a month was pretty pricey...especially for a PhD student who really only watches what's on network TV. After multiple attempts at a home-built DVR, my wife and I bought a TiVo and learned the joys of over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts. What we lost in content, we made up in cost savings. The TiVo allowed us to cut the cord (the cable cord at least) and not move away from the UI that most modern tv systems have: guide, information, and the ability to pause a show.

We only purchased one TiVo device and it is hooked to our family room TV. We have a (gasp) tube tv in our room with a digital converter box that has a VERY limited UI. It has an info button that tells you what it is that you're watching and there is a rudimentary guide. But when I use it, I find myself reverting back to my TV habits growing up... I channel surf.

When was the last time you channel surfed? For me, it had to have been 9 or so years since I first got a DVR. Most of the time, our family just chooses what to watch and fast-forwards the commercials if it was recorded OAT. Using the old style TV is completely different. You watch what is on then. You sit through the commercials if the show you're watching is somewhat engaging. Or you just click through the channels like you did circa 1998.

While watching the Big Bang Theory on the old TV last night, I channel surfed and it brought back a lot of memories. I remembered what it was like to change the channel at the commercial and work so hard to come back just in time for the show to start back up. There's actually a music video channel broadcast here OTA that was the perfect thing to jump back and forth to. To make the trip down memory lane complete, the channel ThisTV had ads for this week's movie: Top Gun. It's like a game to see how many other things you can see or take in during the commercial OR see if there is something that makes you want to leave your current show.

From a design point of view, "channel surfing" is a natural enemy of experience design and what users want to do when their information needs are not being met. No one changes the channel for the sake of channel changing or because it is new and novel...the interface has been the same since the 80's. No, people change the channel when they think they can get something better or at the very least, when they really don't want to see this one thing. But, many people (read: me) don't surf anymore and instead pick and choose their content by time shifting or downloading via Hulu or Netflix. When you time shift, you fast-forward through the commercials because they are recorded. With Netflix, you don't have commercials. But what about services like Hulu which are streamed and have commercials.

Hulu pretty much ruins the whole thing. "No Joy" should be Hulu's motto. With Hulu, you can't fast forward the commercials and you can't click away...they have you trapped! Of course, they usually only show you two commercials compared to the three minutes that TV usually shows but they also charge you $6 a month for the joy of watching shows with commercials.

I think we can learn something from the old-style tv viewing when designing user experiences. Developers often want to keep users in their app or on their web site. But imagine if your users could hop back and forth between your content and something that a bad thing? Is that even relevant? Maybe your mobile app needs to save its state if users are hopping out of it, into something else and then back in.

Or, you can take the Hulu approach and keep people in your app or they miss out or need to restart similar to the Twitter app on iPad. It is a twitter client, web browser, camera, uploader, and floor's like you never need to leave...It's everything the modern twitter user needs.

I encourage you to think about your users divided attention when using the tools you build and not penalize them for "channel surfing". At the very least, I encourage you to watch an old tv and channel surf.